Archive for February, 2023

1623-2023: the First Folio of Shakespeare

February 27, 2023

I allow myself extravagant treats from time to time, and quite a few years ago one of those was a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was published 400 years ago this year. It’s gorgeous to look through, but serves absolutely no useful purpose in my life; I sit and leaf through it occasionally, and let my eyes dwell on some of my favourite passages…I’m reminded of the power of Shakespeare though the magic of his use of our language, probably at a critical stage in its development.

It’s an incredibly important document, in that many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays are only known from their texts in this folio, ie they weren’t previously printed separately in individual quarto versions, and so would have possibly been forever lost without this volume. It also seems like a tribute to the man from those who had known him and worked with him, in that it was published seven years after his death, and both the theatres and popular tastes in drama had already moved on; some of the plays would not be performed again for a very long time.

It’s also an incredibly shoddy document, in terms of production values, as we’d call them today. Act and scene divisions appear in some of the plays, others are only divided into acts, some aren’t divided up at all – Romeo and Juliet, for instance. That play is also missing its prologue. In some plays, we start off with act and scene divisions and then these just disappear part way through the text. Pagination is all over the place. In some of the plays, nouns are capitalised, as in German, in others, not. Troilus and Cressida seems to have been an afterthought, or initially forgotten, because it’s just inserted into the middle of the volume without any page numbers. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is sometimes named as Shylock, sometimes just as ‘Jew’…

Thinking about the logistics of its production, it must have been a massive task, with one-sided, single sheet printing and the need for multiple type compositors, printing a batch of sheets then breaking up the type so that it could be used for more of the nearly one thousand pages… and yet, another, similarly massive project, the King James Bible, had been completed a decade previously without anywhere near as many errors. But then, that involved a sacred text and it was a state-sponsored project.

My own acquaintance with Shakespeare started at school, obviously: we studied The Merchant of Venice for O Level. Not an easy play for so many reasons, but I enjoyed it immensely, partly thanks to an inspirational teacher; I can still recited sizeable chunks off by heart. We moved on to two of the great tragedies, Othello and King Lear, at A Level. And then, of course, at university, we met a good many of the rest of the plays. I can still remember lectures by Kenneth Muir, at the time one of the greatest Shakespearean scholars, who would march around the dais as he lectured, and call forth any lines from any of the plays when he needed them…

Angus Macvicar: The Lost Planet

February 24, 2023

      Courtesy of the wonderful Internet Archive and a library in India I have just gone back 60 years in a time machine…

I’ve written before about hoovering up the contents of the children’s section of the Stamford Public Library before, during my younger days. One of the books (a series, actually) that’s always lurked in my memory is The Lost Planet, by Angus Macvicar. Given that it will be getting on for sixty years since I read them, tracking down anything was going to be a challenge, I felt, but for books that first introduced me to, and hooked me on science fiction, it was going to be worth it, and it turned out rather easier than I expected.

The novels are categorised as ‘juvenile science fiction’. The one I tracked down and re-read is a fast-paced yarn with a boy hero, and the science is so far-fetched as to be risible. A planet that seems to wander around the solar system much as a comet does, coming almost as close to Earth as the moon actually is, a small group of scientists and engineers building an atomic-powered spacecraft in (almost) a back garden in remote Scotland in order to go there…international rivalry with a thinly disguised Russian project – Americans nowhere to be seen! — spies and secret agents. The whole thing smacks of the Eagle comic and Dan Dare, and of course it is of the same era.

Their ship is irreparably damaged in a crash-landing on the planet. It’s Earth-like but smaller, and they set off exploring much as one might set out on a country hike. The weirdest thing is the widespread presence of a deep-rooted and scented white flower, which appears to exert a physical and mental calming influence on the members of the party, and when their Russian rivals bump into them (just like that!) the latter are friendly enough to offer to take them back home on their spaceship.

As I said, it’s a kid’s book (I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense at all) so lots of things that are potentially very interesting are only briefly touched on or hinted at, before the story moves on, but – as my own case shows – seeds are sown.

Other books in the series are not easily available, but the planet has inhabitants who are of a pacifist inclination, having wrecked their own planet through ‘atomic experimentation’, and one of them is brought to Earth with their message. It all seems uncannily prescient, in an incredibly naive way, and I have also found myself wondering if the books not only sowed my love of SF but also nudged me in the direction of pacifism, which I realise I began to entertain seriously in my early teenage years. Stap me, as some folk may remember me saying…

Charlotte Mullins: A Little History of Art

February 22, 2023

     It’s an ambitious book, but I’ve enjoyed others in this series, particularly the poetry one, so feeling my knowledge of art history was a bit patchy, I gave it a go. Mullins traces the history and development of various art forms from prehistory, through their use in ritual and religion, and eventually to their current place in temporal and political power, supported by the patronage of the wealthy. She also attempts to range globally, which I think is important and valuable, though it will eventually be interesting to read other critics and historians who also broaden their scope, and see if their judgements come together…

She shows us how, in the Christian world, there was a particular emphasis on art for religious purposes; equally we learn of the central importance of developments during the Renaissance, when the art of the classical world was rediscovered.

There’s an interesting highlighting of a good number of female artists of whom I’d never heard, and rather earlier in time than I’d been aware of, too.

For me, because it links in to the art that I like most and am most interested in, she was very helpful on the emergence of landscape as a subject rather than mere background, as well as the increasing interest in light. And she also confirmed what I’d felt about the way that the emergence and development of photography in the early 19th century had freed art from mimesis and allowed so much more freedom and experimentation. I liked the way she showed links, developments and connections in a wide range of ways.

Perhaps inevitably, the closer it gets to the present day, the less clear it all becomes, as we move into the disputed territory of value judgements about art from which we have insufficient distance in time. I’ve always found this problem with contemporary literature, too: what, of those works of any kind being created or written now, will survive the test of time? There are aspects of all art forms which can be lazy, derivative, too experimental, too self-indulgent; equally, brilliant things are being created which the future will value.

Necessary explanations of technical terms occasionally became naive and even irritating. There are a decent number of (small) illustrations and reproductions, but in a text covering so many works of art, they weren’t really sufficient: perhaps a linked online resource to more reproductions might have been considered? All-in-all, a useful tome, though.

Books that changed me

February 17, 2023

I have a log of every book I’ve read since I was 18, so for the last half century, and one day I’ll add up the total and horrify myself. But, having spent so much time reading and enjoying reading, inevitably there are books that I recognise changed me and the way I look at the world. I wonder what yours are; here are a selection of mine.

As a child, I plundered Stamford Public Library, and there was a series of children’s science fiction called The Lost Planet, by Angus MacVicar. As I now vaguely recall some sixty years later, the concept was totally devoid of any scientific plausibility: a planet, inhabited by humans who spoke English, that somehow for a few years came within reachable distance of Earth, and was visited a few times by a small group of earthlings, including children, before it travelled ever further away and became unreachable. I was gutted, realising that the imaginary heroes would never see that planet and its people again… and I’d caught the science fiction bug, which has never left me since. (Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to track down and download a copy of the first book in the series!) And it strikes me that the members of the Ekumen, in Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous Hainish stories, suffer the same fate as they travel between worlds, leaving their homes and kin behind forever.

I had a Somerset Maugham Tphase as a teenager; the only book I still retain and have any care for is The Razor’s Edge, which I’ve re-read a couple of times, and it opened my eyes to the possibility of a personal spiritual quest, which might involve travel to remote parts of the world; I think it was the legitimising of the quest, an idea which had obviously been germinating in my young self, that was most powerful effect of that novel.

Hermann Hesse came into my ken slightly later, as a student, and now in my later years he still speaks powerfully to my condition, and none of his novels do so more powerfully than the obviously heavily Jungian Narziss and Goldmund. Ostensibly the story of two friends in mediaeval times, whose lives take very different paths, one spiritual and the other secular, it can also be seen as an examination of two parts of a single personality, and how it’s possible for one to be torn by contrary impulses. Whichever way you read it (or both at the same time) the friendship which endures throughout life as both men explore their impulses and yearnings is – for me – incredibly powerful and moving, and it has always lurked somewhere deep in my sub/unconscious, and its ideas have accompanied me on my own quests.

The last book I’ll mention here is not a novel, but a series of essays: Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques, which was on our reading list at university. It was part of a course on the Enlightenment as I recall, and I was strongly drawn to the idea of thinkers demystifying the myths and half-truths of the past, questioning everything in search of rational explanations. And, as I’ve often been told, being an Aquarian, this sort of thing obviously would appeal to me. These essays, and the thinking they led me to, caused me to take the decision to leave the Catholic Church, in which I had been brought up and raised. Back in those days, I thought that the new atheist me had all the answers, but that was not to be, either, since the unrequited spiritual emptiness led me, via the music of Bach, to Quakerism. But that is another story. However, when I last opened my copy of the Voltaire, after many years, I discovered that he had written several letters about Quakers, whose approach to the world intrigued him and earned his respect. Plus ça change…

Hans Peter Richter: Friedrich

February 16, 2023

     I can read books in French; my German isn’t of a high enough standard to cope with books. But someone in our German group recently lent me a book – in German — and I took it to read because I had used it so many times during my teaching career – in English translation, of course – with my Y8 classes as an introduction to what I suppose would nowadays be called Holocaust education. It was an interesting experiment, I’ll say ‘working my way through it’ rather than reading it in German: I was made even more aware of my deficient German grammar and restricted vocabulary.

Friedrich is a clever and carefully written book, from the perspective of two young boys of an age, whose families live in the same apartment house in an unidentified German town. One is Jewish, the other is not; when they are at primary school, the Nazis come to power. It’s written as a series of loosely connected chapters, identified by a year in the English version. You can see where it’s going: the impact of the Nazi regime on both boys’ lives, in very different ways. They are forced apart, and we see many of the adults around them also changed by the times and the regime, and the drift towards war.

It’s a short novel, simply written; events speak for themselves. For my students, apart from the growing horror at what happened as time passed, what was even more shocking was the historical timeline given as an appendix at the end of the book, the list of many of the laws and regulations that gradually destroyed the lives of the Jews in Germany. I can still recall the gasps as they read of a law passed which forbade blind Jews to carry white sticks and wear white armbands to identify themselves in the street and among traffic… it was such ‘ordinary’ abominations that were most shocking.

I imagine the book is not much used, if at all, nowadays, superseded by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is, to me, a much less effective and far more contrived tale, stretching credibility just a bit too far. However, if it is also succeeding in ensuring that the horrors of those years are never forgotten, then it is also performing a useful task.

Wieslaw Rogalski: The Polish Resettlement Corps 1946-49

February 15, 2023

      I had a vague awareness of the Polish Resettlement Corps from my father’s stories about the war, and from his military records which we obtained from the MoD, as well as from other historical accounts, but this book offers very detailed chapter and verse about a particular time in history, focused around the sense of the British government’s perceived betrayal of its wartime ally by agreeing to Stalin’s takeover of Poland in 1945, at the Yalta conference.

Rogalski sets out in detail the terms of the agreements and promises made in 1939 as war approached, which were pretty much abandoned from the very start, with Britain and France actually doing very little of what they said they would, in the event of German aggression. He has clearly trawled through all the details of negotiations and debates in Parliament, as set out in official records, from an entire decade, 1939-1949.

One clearly gets the impression of some sense of guilt, almost, on the part of the British authorities, at the way things had turned out, and their excuses in terms of realpolitik for the enslavement of Poland; certainly from Rogalski’s account a good amount of care and effort and detail went into the setting up of the PRC, and into ensuring that it worked.

I was not shocked at the opposition to the plans from sections of the British population, and particularly (and shamefully) the trade unions. This opposition was based partly on misinformation and partly on the unions in particular and the left generally, taking the side of the Soviets, and therefore deciding to see the Poles as fascists… This appalling attitude was at the heart of my father’s lifelong conservatism and opposition to trade unions, matters about which he and I had many bitter arguments. Reading this account, I feel he is entitled to my apology, which of course I cannot now make.

Integrating nearly 200,000 displaced persons was no easy task at that time, and it seems as if a decent enough job was done. My father, thanks to his medical training while in the 1st Independent Polish Paratroop Brigade, found work reasonably quickly. He and his comrades found a place, mainly at the bottom of the social pile, and were grateful not to be returned to what was no longer their homeland, as many of those who remained here were from territories annexed to the Soviet Union, and would therefore have been liable to serious measures for leaving the country without permission, had they made the mistake of returning. Some did, including comrades from whom my father never heard again…

Rogalski’s book fills a necessary gap; it’s a full and comprehensive piece of history, well-researched, fair and balanced, with a good, summative evaluation by way of conclusion.

A poem for Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2023

Marian Allen: The Wind on the Downs


I like to think of you as brown and tall,

As strong and living as you used to be,

In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,

And standing there and laughing down at me.

Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,

Because I can no longer see your face,

You have not died, it is not true, instead

You seek adventure in some other place.

That you are round about me, I believe;

I hear you laughing as you used to do,

Yet loving all the things I think of you;

And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?

You follow and are watchful where I go;

How should you leave me, having loved me so?


We walked along the tow-path, you and I,

Beside the sluggish—moving still canal;

It seemed impossible that you should die;

I think of you the same and always shall.

We thought of many things and spoke of few,

And life lay all uncertainly before,

And now I walk alone and think of you,

And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.

Over the railway line, across the grass,

While up above the golden wings are spread,

Flying, ever flying overhead,

Here still I see your khaki figure pass,

And when I leave the meadow, almost wait

That you should open first the wooden gate.

Many years ago the school and my department had its first ever OfSTED inspection; our inspector was an English specialist and after a lesson on First World War poetry asked if I was familiar with this poem. I wasn’t, and given that this was in pre-internet days, he kindly sent me a copy, with a letter expressing pleasure at time spent with the department. O tempora, O mores…

This is a poem that you have to read aloud, ideally several times, and listen carefully to how it sounds.

There’s something particularly effective in her use of one of the forms of the imperfect tense ‘used to be’ a number of times, with an immediacy that’s almost, but not quite, like the continuous present.

All the speaker has is the memory of her dead lover: she speaks of him as you used to be, and what you used to do. His death is clearly so recent that she cannot quite believe, has not yet been able to accept it. Her memories are very vivid: how he stood, how he laughed.

She talks to him as if he’s there next to her: note the profusion of yous and Is that denotes their closeness and shared existence. There’s a realisation that he’s now in some other place, but it’s still close by, and he can still see can hear her, she imagines. There is the touching final moment when, as the courteous male, he should be there to open the gate for her.

And yet behind this refusal or denial there is the fact of his death: the alliteration of dear and dead in the fifth line, and then the rhyme instead some lines later is an echo of the reality. The repetitions at the start of two consecutive lines in the first stanza BecauseBecause feel like her trying to convince herself, as do the three lines in the next stanza that all start with And.

The first stanza focuses on the poet herself, and her memories, the second is rather more about the two of them; the length of the stanzas allows her to develop her memories fully, and creates a more reflective mood to the poem, I feel. The rhyme scheme is regular and gives the poem structure, without getting in the way of her memories and ideas; the length of the lines helps with this.

It’s a quiet, calm, measured poem; it’s a love poem, and the depth of her love shines through the quietness.

Forty years on

February 13, 2023

I realised recently that it is now 40 years since I finally stopped being a student, and was awarded my M.Phil, for a thesis entitled Feminism and Science Fiction, which I had researched using the resources of the Science Fiction Foundation. At the time, that establishment was based at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London); now it’s based at my alma mater, the University of Liverpool, in the Sydney Jones Library, where I spent a good number of hours as an undergraduate. My researches were supervised in part by Patrick Parrinder, who was the ‘soft man’ at my viva examination; the ‘hard man’ was Professor Tom Shippey. I acquitted myself satisfactorily; a copy of the thesis may be found at the SFF library, the others I have.

All those years ago I was introduced to feminism through a combination of circumstances and found it a necessary and challenging perspective on the world; it remains so. And at the time, many women had turned to science fiction as an imaginative way to explore the possibilities of different worlds, without patriarchy or male domination, worlds where equality between the sexes was actual rather than technical or merely legal. I tried to explore the interface between the theory or the philosophy, and the creative, the literature. It was fascinating.

My thesis has gathered dust on the shelf. I did continue to review novels for Foundation, the academic journal of the SFF for a while, but eventually career, family and other interests meant that I moved on from those days. I haven’t re-read my thesis; I don’t know whether it would speak to today’s conditions, today’s world, today’s readers, and I don’t know whether I would come to the same conclusions today as I did all those years ago. I have no idea, either, whether any readers have found my work of any use subsequently.

I enjoyed the reading, the thinking, the planning, the writing and the revising and correcting; two years of work. In total, I enjoyed eight years of being a student, and, as I used to remind sixth-formers in my care during my teaching career, those years were funded – tuition and living allowance – by the state. I didn’t think twice about that; it was part of a country investing in the future. It gained a teacher who worked for nearly thirty years, and repaid many times over the meagre grants I’d received. Times are so different now. And I think I’d do it all again.

Jonathan Jones: Tracey Emin

February 10, 2023

      I have been intrigued by Tracey Emin’s work for many years, and I have often asked myself why, since her art does summon pretty strong responses from many people, and it broadens out into a wider question for me, of what I look for or expect from art. In some ways – and I stress I don’t speak as someone with any kind of artistic background or talent – I find my response similar to the one I have towards literature: I expect it to make me stop and think, in some way. To be elitist for a moment, I suppose I’m not drawn to, or don’t enjoy, easy art or literature…

Although I don’t like his style, Jonathan Jones’ book is a good introduction to Emin’s work, in terms of biography, background, influences: there’s plenty of detail, and the book is copiously illustrated.

There’s a philistine approach one often hears to some of Emin’s painting: “My toddler could have done that/ better than that…” But your toddler didn’t, an adult artist did, so one at least must ask why. There will be, just as in a poem, both inspiration and intention behind it. I find Emin’s art honest, in that it clearly relates to her life and experience, and I find it challenging: again, as with literature, there’s the instant gut response, and then a more reflective response based on looking deeply for a time. And I’m confronted with awkwardness, with uncomfortableness…

There’s originality, too, particularly in the patchwork, or the neon signwork. And the overt sexuality of many of her paintings and drawings requires an adult response; it’s neither traditionally erotic nor pornographic, and to me much of it is intriguing and beautiful in the same way as the art of Egon Schiele, one of Emin’s acknowledged influences.

So for me not an easy artist to engage with, and certainly not one to ignore or dismiss, and Jones’ book gave me a good deal of useful context as well as further food for thought.

Michael Birkel: Silence and Witness

February 10, 2023

      This little book, by a Quaker and intended to enlighten non-Quakers about the Society of Friends through a little of its history and some explanation of how it works, was also informative to this particular Quaker. The disagreements and arguments of the past seemed quite remote: 19th century evangelical and non-evangelical Quakers, and arguments about the primacy or not of the scriptures made me think how much the Society has moved on… and then I remembered the differences between theist and non-theist Quakers today, which have interested me at various points. How mystical is Quakerism? Where is the balance between inner experience and doctrine?

Michael Birkel is particularly sensitive when he writes about discernment, when reflecting on whether one has a call to minister or not. Generally I found his explanations very lucid, well set-out in a way that would enable non-Friends to understand more about the Society and its members and attenders. And he is honest that we are perhaps not always easy to like or to understand.

I found many of the notions from the past seemed very distant or arcane, and yet could see links to the present day, and how those ideas from the past were still able to find ways to speak to us nowadays. Most comforting was the impression of the multiplicity of spiritual journeys always in progress, journeys that we can share; even though the language and ideas may be very different, we are seekers together and the spirit is there.

Being comfortable with silence…

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