Archive for September, 2022

Pat Barr: A Curious Life for a Lady

September 26, 2022

     I’ve been fascinated by the Victorian traveller Isabella Bird ever since I came across and really enjoyed the Librivox recordings of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and The Englishwoman in America, both excellent and enjoyable listens. So when I came across this in a second-hand bookshop – not having even known of its existence – I had high hopes of learning more about the intrepid woman. And there are clues to aspects of her life that aren’t written about in her books.

However, the book as a whole was rather disappointing: most of it consists of a rather lifeless summary of all Bird’s actual travel books, with lengthy quotations, but almost completely devoid of the spirit of the woman who actually wrote them. So the book saved me having to read some books which I was warned were rather lengthy and worthy, but it did seem rather a futile endeavour.

Bird travelled mainly for her physical and mental health: while she vegetated in Scotland, various ailments and unhappinesses took over her life; when she travelled she became a different person. Her grim home life and health really did contrast greatly with her happiness and vigour as she travelled, and the curiosity and happiness that comes across in her books. Many of these were derived from detailed letters she wrote to the sister she loved and left at home in Scotland while she was abroad.

Gradually a picture does emerge of Bird, and there were a few more details about the one aspect of her life that had intrigued me, her relationship with the outlaw figure Rocky Mountain Jim, with whom she explored Colorado and about whom she writes in considerable detail; in another world one can almost imagine them as lovers…

Bird wrote well; she stepped out of the narrow gender confines of her age, took astonishing risks for a single woman traveller at any time, survived some hair-raising scrapes, and so necessarily gives a refreshing and open perspective on what she saw as she travelled the world.

I can recommend Isabella Bird as a traveller and writer, but not this account of her life and travels.

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol 2)

September 19, 2022

    This second volume of Norman Davies’ history begins with a nation that has vanished from the map of Europe; the idea of Poland survives nevertheless, and he shows us the problems national aspirations can cause. His account of the period is wide-ranging, comprehensive, and he demonstrates a deep level both of sympathy with, and understanding of, the situation of Poles during those years; he is a historian widely read and respected in Poland. Given the absence of a country of which to record the history, he examines things thematically: church, language, history and race create a sense of a nation.

Unless you are prepared to go into great depth, you will never unpick or make sense of the incredible complexity of Polish history, culture and society. Davies manages to do all of this, making things clear and evident, as well as acknowledging that there’s often a touch of the mildly insane about it all…

At another level, the problems really began in 1919, with the task of reconstituting a nation from its very disparate parts, after more than a century of oblivion: the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires had all now disappeared, but each had left a very different mark, culturally, politically and physically, on the Polish space. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d read this magisterial work, I had allowed myself to forget the extent of the horrendous catalogue of bestial Russian behaviour towards the Poles in the part of the nation they occupied (and from which my ancestors came); the picture is of more than two centuries of both Tsarist and Bolshevik domination and brutality. I’d make a glib observation about some aspects of the Russian character and psyche, except that I then remember the atrocities the occupying Nazis carried out; it’s human beings per se that are not a very nice species…

So, to write a fair history of Poland, one needs to have a full grasp of, and be able to explain to others, both the complexities on the ground, and also in hearts and heads; Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder are the only ones I’ve found able to do justice. Davies sets the record of the Second World War straight too, and he’s not afraid to be critical; Poland doesn’t emerge from that period of martyrdom completely covered in glory, and there are those in the current regime who wish to sweep certain things under the carpet. Poland’s shameful treatment by the Western Allies is also fully and correctly catalogued.

A range of necessary maps are included, but I have to say they are reproduced too small and fail to do justice to the subject, mainly through illegibility. Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge at his fingertips. It’s not a recent work – completed before the advent of the Solidarity movement in 1980 – and his summative remarks at the end of the history do read like something from another age; to be fair to Davies, he does acknowledge that historians shouldn’t write about (their) present. I don’t imagine another history this complete and comprehensive being written in the near future.

Andrew Martin: Blackpool Highflyer

September 4, 2022


Reader, I gave up.

I thought, when this came up as a book group choice, aha! An easy read, a detective story, the sort of thing I enjoy and can relax with. I’ve ended up resenting the two evenings I spent hoping it was going to improve, and when I got to about page 150 and saw I wasn’t even halfway through, I said, enough!

The main offence, for me, right from the start, was that it’s badly written, stylistically clunky, the author trying hard to get into an early 20th century register (when the story is set) and failing. Then, there is just too much train stuff – and I know that’s a personal preference rather than a valid criticism. The sexism jarred, too. I know that a typical 1900 male might have referred to his partner as ‘the wife’ when talking to others, but here it came up far too frequently, often several times in a paragraph, and in the narrator’s account, not just in speech. Unnecessary, and gratuitously offensive, or just plain silly. And then, the anachronisms, one of which was the final straw, with a character referring to receiving something by ‘first-class’ post… which was devised by the GPO in the 1970s, for goodness sake. People 120 years ago enjoyed several mail deliveries a day; even I can remember early morning and lunchtime post!

I was hoping for a good detective yarn at the very least, but this one limped along: why had someone tried to derail this train by putting a large grindstone on the line? Well, I’ll never know. It all felt very disjointed. Detective fiction works in various ways; effective stories often have the detective character and a sidekick as a sounding-board; if you want your detective to be a solo, you have to work rather harder on the plotting and the characterisation. And after over a hundred pages, we’d only just started to get some of the characters beyond the cardboard cut-out stage, I’m afraid.

I’ll stop there: it’s obvious I didn’t like the book. I post this review to maintain my intention of writing about every book I read.

E P Sanders: The Historical Figure of Jesus

September 3, 2022

  This was a most interesting read, mainly because of Sanders’ perspective and approach, as a historian writing about Jesus as just another historical character, and setting him clearly in the context of his time and society, using all available sources. For any other historical personage this would be standard practice and unsurprising, but the story of this particular character has been so swamped with other approaches, and uncritical veneration, that being faced with a dispassionate investigative approach was a serious eye-opener, at least for this reader.

New fact number one was chronology: Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels were committed to writing, ergo he did not know the gospels, and neither do the gospel writers seem to have known his letters. Then Sanders unpicks and explains the Roman regime which ran Palestine at the time, and dispels a number of old chestnuts about the roles and powers of a Roman governor, about Pontius Pilate in particular, about Jewish high priests and what they had the power to do, about how Jewish civil society was organised and run. There was clearly a good deal of autonomy as long as the local population behaved.

Sanders’ forensic investigative approach somehow “shrinks” and normalises Jesus: he’s a human character in human history here; nothing of God or Christianity interferes. He shows what a historian can work out from the available material, and there is clearly a good deal more than I was aware of. Comparison of gospels reveals a lot, inconsistencies included, and much can be deduced or surmised; Sanders carefully clarifies what we can be sure of and what must forever remain unclear or unknown.

It is an exhaustive and at times densely-written academic work. The picture which gradually emerges is of a man who clearly believed he was carrying out a God-given mission, who became a thorn in the side of the Jewish authorities, and they quickly organised his execution. What they didn’t count on was what came after. That doesn’t mean the resurrection, the nature of which Sanders makes clear we can never know, but the work of his followers in the aftermath of Jesus’ disappearance, powered by their belief in his imminent return…

Faith is most definitely not part of this historian’s work, and perhaps for this reason, believers may find it disturbing or disorienting, though I personally don’t actually see why this should be the case. I feel a good deal more informed, factually and contextually and that is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really change what I understand to be the message of Jesus’ teaching.

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