Archive for November, 2020

Alberto Angela: Les trois jours de Pompeii

November 28, 2020

     A few years ago, I saw the amazing Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, and since then had been meaning to read more about what happened there in the first century CE. It was a toss-up between Mary Beard’s book – I have always enjoyed her TV programmes on the ancient world – and a new book by Alberto Angela, an Italian historian whose book on daily life in the Roman Empire I really enjoyed a couple of years ago.

Angela writes well, with an excellent eye for detail. Frequently, when he’s describing an object or artefact from the ruins, he gives us the Latin word as well, just in case we’re interested, or have some knowledge of the language. The book is structured well, as a countdown through the hours leading up to the eruption, and then the hours of its duration. I had no idea just how enormous and devastating the eruption was, and found myself thinking, OK, so what about Krakatoa?

It’s hard to describe the exact nature of the book; dealing with events so long ago, either you can provide a few bald facts, or you can engage in speculation, and Angela manages to tread an interesting, very fine line. There is documentary evidence for a certain number of survivors, and he focuses on those details to create a kind of docudrama novel, as it were, which explores their lives, homes and possible routines, obviously drawing on a good deal more general source material about ancient Rome, the excavations in the Pompeii-Herculaneum region and broader Roman history. So the imaginative part is very well-anchored in detail, and the overall effect brings those terrible days to life. In this sense his approach mirrors the successful one of his previous book. Where he is deliberately imagining things for the sake of completion, he says so clearly. Certainly, I never felt misled.

The Romans weren’t really aware of the mountain as a volcano, although there had been serious damage in 62CE; it wasn’t so prominent a feature of the landscape then as it is now, and they seem to have just put up with the warning signs that would nowadays have kicked evacuation plans into action. I was astonished at just how large an area was devastated, and the six phases of the eruption, which had different effects on the various towns and villages.

There are useful maps of the region and the towns and settlements, and some surprisingly well-reproduced photos in this mass-market paperback. Overall, I got a very clear picture of daily life, industry and routines in the region, which was the stomping ground of many well-to-do people of the time; Pliny the Elder died during the eruption, and his nephew Pliny the Younger observed events from some thirty miles away and wrote about what he had seen. One thing in particular touched me in the book: several times, Angela reminds us that the dozens of plaster casts of people dying in agony, that are in various museums and displays, were real people, and that it’s somehow not quite right to be gawping at them as tourists, and taking selfies with them…

A milestone

November 23, 2020

Just a very brief aside, to note for my readers who would otherwise not know it, that my previous post was, according to WordPress, who I’m sure know these things, my 1000th post! If I’ve written about 500 words in each one, and I suspect that’s probably the average, then that’s half a million words, several novels’ worth! Has it been worthwhile? You are probably better judges of that than I am. I write because I want to, and I enjoy it. I shall continue until I no longer want to…

Here is the news…or not

November 23, 2020

Elsewhere you’ll find posts about my love of newspapers and my newspaper collection; recently while having a tidy-up and clear-out, I found myself looking through my collection again, and various different impressions struck me:

How much more serious and sober newspapers were in the days when they were monochrome! The message was clear: this is news, not entertainment. Almost – therefore, you can trust what you read here. I found a crumbling front page from the Daily News (founded by Charles Dickens, no less) in 1912, where the main headline speculated about what was going on at the South Pole. Had Amundsen got there? Had Scott got there? Scott’s imminent return was awaited…unless he had chosen to spend another season on the ice, continuing his research… There, you also get the sense of immediacy from the time way back when, as well as an even more poignant sense of the tragedy.

Back in those days, some newspapers did not carry news on the front page… The Times resisted up until 1968, I think. Some newspapers eschewed photographs – Le Monde did this I think well into the 1980s. There were far fewer pages: wartime restrictions and paper rationing meant that they often ran to only 4 broadsheet pages. They still managed to fit in pretty nearly everything you’d expect in a newspaper today, using space much more economically. I also looked back through some newspapers from the communist countries: again, few pages, few pictures, and most strikingly, no advertising. I found this very refreshing: the message was, here is the news, rather than, we are trying to sell you something. And yes, I know their idea of news was somewhat different from ours.

The changes creep in gradually, from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards: more pages, more sections, as daily papers discovered the need to emulate the weekend ones. Designers took over, using white space and eventually colour to create a superficially more attractive product, with more pictures, and more ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’ content; news now occupied an ever smaller proportion of the pages. And articles, both news and commentary, became shorter, perhaps reflecting what television was doing to our attention-span?

Ironically, these developments came along at the time when newspapers themselves were becoming far less ‘relevant’ to more and more people, because the news was on the TV and the radio; these developments may have been intended to arrest the decline of print, but it is now evident that they have singularly failed, when you consider, for instance, a newspaper like the Daily Express that once enjoyed the largest circulation in the land, now a pitiable shadow of its former self, currently selling fewer copies per day than The Guardian or The Times did in their heyday…

It was inevitable, once the internet arrived; the vast infrastructure that distributed tonnes of print around the land overnight was no longer needed; a far more up-to-date news service is now available at the breakfast table than ever dropped through the letter-box. And yet, I am convinced, in many ways we are the poorer for the changes that have taken place over the past half-century. I think we are less clear about what news is, we are less clear about the distinction between news and opinion, and we are less well-informed that we used to be, in spite of, or perhaps because of those changes.

On learning to read

November 22, 2020

I now have a grandson at primary school who is beginning to learn to read, that first step to the opening of a huge world… I’ve written before about my learning to read, and also the importance of my local public library in fostering the enjoyment of reading in my earliest years, leading to so much pleasure throughout my life. So what did I read in those youngest years? Our house was not a house of books when I was a child: there was no money for such things…

Winnie the Pooh is probably one of the earliest books I can remember. It was a birthday present. I liked the stories, but I also liked what they offered to my imagination: I pictured myself living in the wood, in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s hole. I laughed my head off at the impossible spellings Owl conjured up when he wrote Eeyore’s birthday card… I learned that books stimulated my imagination and made me laugh. Later on, at sleepovers – we didn’t call them that, in the old days – my friend and I struggled to read the adventures of Professor Branestawm to each other without totally creasing up in helpless laughter.

Another book I loved in my youngest days was The Wind in the Willows. I know I’m showing my age here, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much literature written for children way back then. Again, it had my imagination in overdrive: how I wanted to live in Badger’s home – it sounded utterly safe and magical.

Teachers at school are supposed to provide “extension activities” for brighter pupils; in my day, there was a bottom shelf of random books for us to be invited to read if we finished a task early, and that was fine by me: I worked my way through everything on offer. I can still remember a series of books about a bear called Mary Plain who had all sorts of adventures, and I have often wondered if these ancient storybooks is where the idea for the much more successful Paddington Bear series came from…

There was also the extremely worthy and edifying Children’s Encyclopaedia, nine hefty tomes filled with what seemed like a random assortment of articles on all sorts of subjects. There were also puzzles and tricks and scientific experiments described. I read my way through every page that interested me in all of these.

There were comics. I was allowed one a week and started with Jack and Jill. It was marvellous to be allowed down the street to the newsagent’s rabbit warren with my fivepence every Monday by myself to go and buy it. Later, when a more edifying and educational magazine called Treasure came out, my mother moved me on to this. Eventually my parents came across a part-work, Knowledge, which would build up over four years into a veritable encyclopaedia, to be bound into volumes. I think I devoured every word, in weekly doses…

Comics had to wait for the hairdresser’s, while I waited my turn to be cropped, and also for the annual visit to my grandparents where I could catch up on months’ worth of the Eagle which my uncle used to hoard. Here I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon: maybe my earliest encounter with science fiction? And when I got to secondary school there were the commando library comic books, Lion, Tiger, a whole raft of war stories, sf and sports stories (these last I really didn’t care for, just like sport itself).

There were newspapers at home and these too were hoovered up, although obviously I was selective in what I read and often failed to understand. There was the Daily Mail (!) every day, and the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial at the weekend, though eventually my mother forbade the News of the World as too salacious.

And then there was the public library, for my parents could never have afforded to keep me in books. Often, especially during the school holidays, my sisters and I would go nearly every day, and I’d end up reading their books, particularly Enid Blyton, as well as my own choices. I went for the usual boys’ stuff: the Jennings series about life at boarding school, Biggles’ tales about warfare and flying, although I’m sure the greatest influences on me from those years were the amazing Young Traveller series, where two children and their parents ended up visiting almost every country in the world and introducing the reader to history, geography, culture and food of so many different lands, and the astonishing sf series about the Secret Planet, which really did get me hooked on science fiction for good…

They were magical days, magical times and magical books, and I’m sure that I can remember them in such detail testifies to the formative effect they all had on me.

On integrity and the rule of law

November 22, 2020

There is a concept called the ‘rechtsstaat’* in German, which basically means a country where everything is done according to the law, and the law cannot be side-stepped by anyone, or ignored, or twisted to a particular person’s advantage; this kind of country is contrasted with regimes like those of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia where, although there may have been laws on paper, they did not guarantee the citizen any protection or justice in practice…

I now find myself somewhat alarmed by the way that the country I live in, which regards itself – arrogantly – as some kind of paragon of contemporary democracy, seems to be moving slowly in that direction. Whilst the ordinary British citizen – or is that still subject? – generally enjoys the protection of the law, more and more we see people at the top, our rulers, government ministers and advisors, MPs behaving as if it is acceptable for them to do what they please because they are above the law and its provisions. And they increasingly get away with this behaviour, whether it is actual law-breaking, or the kind of behaviour that used mean immediate resignation from public office because it went against all notion of honour, integrity and decency, though not actually illegal.

The most obvious example is that of Cummings, the prime minister’s ‘advisor’ and supposed anarchist, who ignored COVID travel restrictions, refused to apologise for this, was not dismissed; this behaviour has since been seriously instrumental in fostering the attitudes of those who would treat any public health regulation with contempt because it does not suit them. And we now have a Home Secretary – one of the highest public officials in the land – guilty of bullying, not resigning, not being dismissed but being defended by her colleagues…

We now have so many different and ever-changing sets of COVID regulations and restrictions that the well-intentioned and law-abiding citizen cannot always be clear what is legal and not. This encourages even the law-abiding citizen to make their own decisions based on what they think is reasonable and sensible, without reference to legality or non-legality, and while most of these decisions may be sensible and well-intentioned, they may not always have the desired result; they are also rather alarming in that they reflect a change in attitude to the law, coming from a sense that the average citizen now feels they are on their own…

On their own? Why? There is a slippery slope here, as people move towards thinking that the government isn’t caring for them, doesn’t have their interests at heart, isn’t protecting them, because it can’t, or because it doesn’t know how to, or because it’s more interested in allowing – for example – private companies to make enormous profits from the pandemic than let local authorities and health bodies use their carefully developed expertise to protect people.

Now we start to move closer to attitudes prevalent in the USA, where protecting yourself is your own affair, where many, strangely, regard government as a bad thing, and the government as the enemy. As the state relieves itself of duties towards all citizens, it becomes potentially a more repressive apparatus, a private security company writ large, almost, whose principal purpose is to protect the wealth and interests of those people who own it, or imagine that they do… at which point, where is democracy, where are rights, where is the ‘rechtsstaat’?

* for clarity, wikipedia’s definition = A Rechtsstaat is a “constitutional state” in which the exercise of governmental power is constrained by the law.

On the meaning of it all…

November 21, 2020

Logically, life – being alive – cannot have a meaning or a purpose, because it is something that happens to us unrequested, as it were, through the volition (or not) of other people, with varying intentions or none. And then, here we are: get over it or get on with it, as they say. But, what to do with it remains a question that has vexed and perplexed minds over the ages. I’m no different.

Biologically, the purpose of life is to ensure that there is more life created; most of us ensure this happens, at which point our usefulness and purpose is over.

And we are here, and to make sense of it if we can. Many people pass through life, being and doing, without very much thought at all; it feel dismissive and patronising to observe that, and yet there are times when I briefly feel envious of them, until I recall Socrates’ point that the unexamined life is worthless. And I come back to what I feel is the most amazing part of me: my mind, my brain, my ability to perceive, reflect, think about myself and my time here. Whether it’s God-given or a product of millennia of evolution is neither here nor there, really: either way, it astonishes me.

I’ve always loved staring at the night sky and the stars and planets. I’m no astronomer: I can identify some of what I see up there. It’s the effect on my head of looking up, and realising the awesomeness of what is out there. I’ve read science fiction since I was a child, and this has enhanced my imagination: what might be out there, that we will never know about. How small we are, and our world. I’ve said before that the first moon landing was the most exciting day in my life; I’d love to live to see humans land on Mars; I’d love to be around when we make contact with an intelligence form another world. And that will never be – me being around, I mean.

So, there’s my infinitesimal space in the entire scheme of things, and my tiny allotted amount of time here: what to do with it all?

Much of that time fills itself with the mundanities of growing up, learning, living and working, raising a family, growing old; the time is used up without a lot of effort. Once I was young, had dreams, had fun; there was a lot of work and life and now I’m much older. Where did it all go?

But then there’s the reflection: what is the point? What makes it worthwhile? Back to meaning. Obviously, this is where deities and religions come in, as humans over the ages have striven to come to terms with the fact that it all does come to an end one day. We are the only species with a consciousness, an awareness of that, and for many of us, it drives our reflections and our desires. If we can believe – if we can have faith – then there is an anchor in the idea that there is something – maybe better – which comes after this life. It is harder if we cannot. We were once undistributed atoms in the cosmos and ultimately that is where we will return, but I have to say that so far I do not find that very much comfort.

To do something useful with our life may help; to live a good life, where we help our fellows, we serve our community, we help our world move gradually to ever better things. And yet, this is very vague. We do it, some may notice it, although that ought not to be our motivation, and then we are gone, with our efforts. One day, you will only be a story: make sure it is a good one, says the old Arabic proverb. I like this, it comforts me as much as anything else does or can: that people who remember me, for a generation or two, will have a good memory of me. I won’t know about it, and that will be that. I will have had my brief moment in the sun…

Social media = social division?

November 21, 2020

I’ve been on facebook for a decade or so; I use it to keep in touch with distant friends, former colleagues and former students, and to share this blog with some of you… I find it increasingly frustrating to use, and the algorithms that seem to only allow me to see posts from a small proportion of friends are incomprehensible. I’d love an alternative. I have a Twitter account that I don’t use, and an Instagram account that I use occasionally, usually when on holiday. It also drives me nuts when it fills up with adverts and suggestions of whom I might follow… I keep all these accounts as locked down as possible, to block advertising and tracking.

So, I find social media useful. I am also increasingly horrified by its power and its insidious effect on us all, because it’s a commercial product which has the primary purpose of making vast amounts of money for apparently unscrupulous people.

I have the impression that for many – younger – people it’s their gateway to, or source of, news and “commentary” on the news. So everything is smitten into tiny gobbets that will fit on a phone screen, lacking depth, detail and subtlety when it’s not actually incorrect, or deliberately false. This is not good in a society that would like to be thought of as democratic. And then there is the deliberate use of social media to propagandise, to influence and shape opinion, often by very unscrupulous, hidden and anonymous forces: algorithms hunt out the vulnerable and susceptible and set to work. Social media is divisive.

Social media has the power to be very divisive, and to polarise us, into fiercely opposed groups. Again, it’s the brevity and lack of subtlety when it’s so easy to make a throwaway, dismissive, simplistic or aggressive comment on an article or a post, and anonymously too. It can be the equivalent of a brick through a window, something which many people would not do, but a quick snarky comment on social media… no real harm in that, surely?

Social media also seems to separate us from others, in the sense that it isolates us in our own particular bubble of like-minded readers and thinkers, and gives us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are friends with people like us, and tend to make similar comments and have similar reactions to events; opposing viewpoints do not often impinge on our own little echo-chamber.

When I was teaching – former students may recall this – I took great delight in allowing wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of subjects, and often used to play devil’s advocate in order to widen the discussion and introduce different viewpoints. Social media cannot do things like that.

Where is the real danger in all of this? It’s the creation of divisions where there were none before, or the amplification and simplification of divisions and conflicting viewpoints, the fostering of anger rather than discussion, dialogue, argument – all of which are healthy! And look for the motives. I started by pointing at the money, and the moguls of social media are phenomenally rich, far richer than any one individual has the need or the right to be. But look also at the power dynamic: keep people divided into their own particular little interest groups and they won’t see what they have in common, which may well be that the system conspires to keep them separate so that they won’t challenge the existing order and rebel against it, thereby threatening those in power and their money. The Romans knew how to do this two millennia ago “divide et impera” – divide and rule – and it still works today…

What can be done? Clearly so many of us enjoy social media, and would be loth to give it up. We need a different model, perhaps, a non-commercial one. I’d pay a modest monthly sum for a neutral, non-profit oriented facebook or instagram equivalent, one which didn’t allow manipulation or advertising and didn’t try to replace our news media. Or maybe someone out there has a better idea?

Le Monde Diplomatique

November 14, 2020

Disclaimer: I have no connection with the journal other than being a subscriber, and this is not an advertisement for it.

     I’ve mentioned I read Le Monde Diplomatique at various times in this blog. I’ve been a subscriber to the French edition for over twenty years. Originally, I realised that, mid-career and a busy parent, my French was getting rustier and in danger of fading away, and that the least I could do to keep it fresh was to read a magazine regularly. Success here led to my reading quite a bit of fiction in French, as you can again see from the blog.

Why LMD, as it’s called for short? The name is rather off-putting, suggesting corridors of power, great seriousness, and perhaps something far above the realm of ordinary mortals like me. What’s in a name? It’s been published for over sixty years, and was originally, as the name suggests, and offshoot of the French evening paper of that name. It’s now rather more independent and seems to exist in a similar kind of trust arrangement to the one that ensures the independence and financial viability of The Guardian newspaper over here, but on a much more modest scale. It publishes or licences editions in many languages, English included, obviously.

After reading a sample copy, I realised what it offered: depth of analysis, detail and the kind of reflection on issues and places that was disappearing fast from British newspapers, which were more and more devoted to shorter op-ed pieces that could not do justice to the complexity of so much of what was happening in the world. A journal not driven by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle, but appearing monthly, can both stand back from events, and develop a broader perspective, and avoid froth and frivolousness, too. There are rarely photos in LMD articles, which are usually a minimum of a full (Berliner-size) page, and are illustrated with cartoons and artwork. This has a helpful sobering and distancing effect.

The journal/magazine has a committed leftwing stance politically, and strives to include all the world: too much of our journalism is west/ first world-centred. As it’s a French publication, there’s a fair proportion of material about France and French politics, some of which I find a bit tiresome/dull/irrelevant to my world picture. There is usually a themed series of articles in each issue, taking a particular topic from different perspectives, often compassing several pages.

I keep reading it – at the modest cost of round about a pound a week – because I learn so much from it, and feel I have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world I live in. You could argue that I don’t need this, as I’m hardly an important decision-maker, but I feel a sense of responsibility here: I live on the planet so I should be interested in and informed about what’s happening on it…

Keith Roberts: Pavane

November 14, 2020

     Here’s one I’ve liked for a long time, and just re-read. I hesitate to call it a novel, as it’s really a series of loosely-connected short stories, set in an alternative time-frame, which was what originally attracted me to it some forty years ago. Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was successful, the Protestant Reformation in England was undone, following which it was seriously curbed throughout Europe and the hegemony of Rome was re-established. Strict control is maintained over all aspects of science and technology, which means that late twentieth-century England, when the tales are set, is a very different place, without the internal combustion engine and electricity… But trouble is building up, the natives are dissatisfied.

Keith Roberts creates an incredibly detailed alternative vision, which convinces the reader through that detail. Within his picture of a strange England, he embeds a series of vignettes of different individuals and their lives in this unfamiliar world. There’s the driver of a steam-powered road-train, beset by highwaymen; a trainee semaphore signaller; a monk who is an artist and illustrator, so traumatised by images of the Inquisition at work that he’s ordered to make, that he has a breakdown and leads an initial, failed rebellion against the Church. We return to the family of the road-train driver and see how much more repressive the Church has become; the links between the stories and characters are fairly tenuous over time, though unified by their common location in the West Country. Things come to a head in the character of the heiress to a fortified castle, who heads what develops into a national revolt against Rome in a final powerful story.

What is so fascinating and gripping – to this reader at least – about such tales, set in times and places that can never be? I suppose they appeal to the thinker in me, who realises that our choices and decisions at every level do shape the future. In my own lifetime, for instance, I might reflect on what the world would be like had the Soviet Union not collapsed and disappeared… And so, we ought to be thinking seriously about the things we do, and their effect on the future, much more than the vague questions and largely irrelevant choices that we are offered in ‘democratic’ elections every few years. Why do most of us express great concern about climate emergency, while we continue consuming vast quantities of energy and consumer goods? Just asking…

Christopher Priest: The Space Machine

November 6, 2020

     I obviously liked this novel, for this is the fifth time I’ve read it (over a period of 40 years, mind). It’s a tribute to the lure of H G Wells’ two novels which are archetypes of science fiction, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Priest has played deftly with the two novels, as did Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, though now I think I prefer the latter’s riff on Wells’ creation…

Deviously, Priest firstly gets his hero and heroine together, and then through the use of a prototype time machine manages to get them to Mars: as he is writing in a pseudo-nineteenth century style and vein, as well as pastiching Wells’ novels, obviously it’s a Mars as was imagined at the end of that century, with canals and cities and humanoid Martians, divided into two species, rather as the Morlocks and Eloi 800,000 years in Earth’s future in Wells’ original novel.

What we gradually realise as they explore the planet and learn about it, is that they have arrived there in the time leading up to the projected invasion of Earth which Wells described; Mars is a worn-out planet gradually becoming a wasteland unable to support its inhabitants (now where have we come across that before?) and so its masters are seeking pastures new. Priest develops and fleshes out the ideas only hinted at by Wells, especially the monsters’ need to feed on human blood, and their powerful weaponry.

The story struck me, this time around, as a bit plodding and woodenly crafted. Our plucky pair – in a nineteenth-century swashbuckling manner, stow away on the first spaceship of the Martian invasion of Earth, and of course are unable to do anything when they arrive back home; the invasion proceeds very much as Wells describes it, and the pair encounter a philosopher among the destruction and chaos of south east England, who turns out to be none other than Wells himself, of course, and he finds their tale very far-fetched.

It’s a competent yarn, much more War of the Worlds than Time Machine, and I think I can dispense with a sixth reading…

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