Archive for the 'history' Category

Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….

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Walter Kempowski: All For Nothing

January 2, 2019

61xYa-pKCfL._AC_US218_It’s hard to find the right adjective for this novel: it’s very good, powerful, moving and yet none of those words does it full justice. It’s a novel about Germany in the closing stages of the Second World War, and another of my reactions as I finished it was anger, as I realised it would have been impossible for an English writer to produce such a novel, and because this feeling once again highlighted my country’s inability to understand other nations’ experience of that conflict, or their desire, through the European project, to ensure that it was never repeated.

To prevent this piece becoming a rant, and because I want to do justice to a remarkable book, I’ll slow down and explain. The novel is set in the depths of East Prussia, an area of the Reich that was cut off as the Russians swept westwards, and eventually impossible to escape from. East Prussia no longer exists, its territory having been divided by Stalin between the Soviet Union and Poland, for the latter nation as recompense for all the territory Stalin took. And I declare a kind of interest, as much of my Polish family live in those once German lands.

But we need to go further back into history to understand: in those territories for centuries many different peoples had lived along side each other reasonably peaceably – Poles, Germans, Kashubians… after the end of the Great War there had been plebiscites and some areas had chosen to become part of the re-born Polish Republic, while others opted for Germany. The Nazis’ treatment of other nationalities and races as subhuman meant the end of any further co-existence, and Stalin enforced ethnic cleansing throughout the region. The region is beautiful countryside and you can see German characteristics in many of the buildings which survived the war, but it is now indelibly part of Poland. I remember great shock when visiting as a teenager in 1970, and seeing the wreckage of the old German cemeteries, which were being demolished and removed…

Back to the novel: apparently Kempowski spent years collecting information, testimonies and evidence from those who fled – as he had done as a child. So although some of the places in the novel are fictional, the whole is solidly rooted in fact. And he manages to create a lyrical picture of an epoch, a place and a way of life which had totally vanished, which had to vanish, and yet make us regret its loss; the only other novel I’ve read which had succeeded so powerfully is Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Because it’s a tale of the gathering flight from the region, there are many characters who pass through, as well as those who are more fixed; there are glimpses of Nazism and also the impression that the Nazis have passed them by, which of course they have not. There is a great sense of naivety about many of them, and of wilful blindness and collusion about others, as well as a complete inability to grasp the epic scale of the calamity which is overtaking them. And they are all basically decent people, deep down: they cannot understand what is happening to them. Death arrives horribly suddenly and brutally. Nazi bureaucrats and minions continue to wreck lives in nit-picking little ways even as the Reich is crashing down around them: no-one is spared. People are capable of great goodness and great pettiness; Kempowski shows us it all, achieving a strange, almost Brechtian distancing from his characters and their fates. Perhaps much of the book’s power comes from this, through the sense of ordinary people swept along by the tide of events, both complicit and yet also tragically victims. His neutral tone is also important, helping create a certain sense of nostalgia and sadness, as well as inevitability, and giving a dream-like quality to the lost world. There is an unreal, even surreal quality to many characters’ thoughts and actions, which unnervingly leads the reader at times to attribute innocence to them; yet there are chilling hints of their knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by the regime which acts in their name. The moral complexity is both challenging and necessary.

The book has been translated very well, I feel, and the novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s introduction to this edition, in which she writes about Kempowski’s research, is also very useful background.

2018: My year of reading

December 27, 2018

A bit more reading than last year: I’ve managed to slow down the number of acquisitions slightly and have passed on quite a lot of books to Amnesty International this year. So far I’ve read 68, and can also report that unlike last year, I don’t seen to have given up on any. Out of the total, 21 were novels, half of those science fiction, and most were re-reads; I’ve read almost no new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature for some reason.

A resolution for 2019 is to read more fiction, as is to continue with clearing out books I shall never read again, trying to buy fewer books, and trying to read more of those on the waiting pile, which I think has probably stopped growing(just as well) but hasn’t shrunk appreciably…

Awards for 2018: most disappointing read was Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point, his autobiography completed shortly before he killed himself. I struggled with Thomas Mann as a student and his son’s book sat on my shelf for over 30 years. His daughter Erika’s collection When The Lights Went Out, a collection of short stories about life in a small town under the Nazis, however, I did enjoy, and wrote about it here last year [?]

Again there is no award for weirdest book: I haven’t read anything weird this year.

Best new novel: an easy choice, this one, as there were so few to choose from, but it would have been my choice anyway – Stefan Brijs’ masterpiece set in the early days of the Great War, Post for Mrs Bromley. I do hope someone is out there working on a translation into Englsh.

Best novel (as in not one published recently) I think has to go to Ernst Weichert’s The Jeromin Children, although Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre Au Noir comes a very close second.

I have a difficult choice to make for the next two categories, Best non-fiction and Book of the Year, as they are both non-fiction. Since it’s my blog and I’m allowed, I’ll cheat. I award Best non-fiction title to Alberto Angela’s Empire, a really good example of the popularisation genre that actually works: the story of the Roman Empire told through the travels of a one sesterce coin. That allows me to give my Book of the Year title to Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, one of the most horrifying and depressing books I’ve ever read, but which absolutely needed to be written and published, as such things must never be forgotten.

I’ll finish by thanking all my readers for your interest in my thoughts, and for your comments if you’ve made any; I hope you’ll continue to visit and find worthwhile things to read here in 2019…

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.

David Ewing Duncan: The Calendar

December 18, 2018

51T5R64P3HL._AC_US218_I don’t know whether it’s a boy thing, but I’ve always been fascinated with clocks and calendars and time generally; apparently I learnt to tell the time before I was four, driving my mother nearly stoddy in the process. Laid up by a nasty cold I dug out and re-read this favourite of mine from twenty years ago.

Here is the history of all the different calendars, how time and the year was measured, and how all of this gradually became more accurate, as amendments and corrections were applied. I recall being astonished when I read – at the age of about nine – in The Guinness Book of Records about the longest year ever, with 445 days in it (46BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar). There is the complicated business of the difference between the year as measured by the stars and our ordinary year measured by the sun (and moon by some).

The key issue for the Christian Church was being able to accurately decide the date of Easter, which is not as easy as some would imagine: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox sounds clear enough until you realise that the day of the vernal equinox and the full moon can vary depending on whereabouts on the planet you happen to be… And, at the time when it was originally laid down (Council of Nicaea, 325CE, if you must know) no-one had the means of measuring or calculating anything that accurately. At some point even later, back calculations to work out when Christ was born were also inaccurate, which is why he was actually born in 4BC (or 5BC or 6BC perhaps).

Calculations were terribly limited until the Indians and Arabs came up with a numeral system that used a zero, allowing decimals to replace inaccurate fractions, which everyone just used to round away, with predictable results. And yet the Church was always suspicious or afraid of new knowledge because it represented a challenge to orthodoxy.

Things improved in the 14thcentury with the invention of the mechanical clock and the possibility of measuring hours accurately. The Gregorian calendar was devised and implemented in the Catholic world in 1582, but not in Protestant lands, which eventually and gradually fell into line, England not agreeing until 1752. So years got mismatched owing to an 11-day discrepancy and the fact that our new year began on March 25 while other countries were already using 1 January. So, in what year was Charles I beheaded? Was that 30 January 1648 or 1649? It’s all relative, of course…

The subject – as you’ll gather from above – fascinates me, and there’s a lot of information in this book, but I do have to bemoan the incredibly shoddy editing and proof-reading which produces some truly bizarre errors: travelling east from London to get to Oxford? And a mysterious city, capital of England’s greatest county, Zork? (Twice that one appears!). As for the Latin quotations – don’t get me started.

The three Voyages of Willem Barents

December 9, 2018

41RtZ0Dd2+L._AC_US218_Willem Barents was a skilled Dutch ship’s pilot and navigator who worked at the same time Shakespeare was writing his plays, and at the time when both English and Dutch sailors were seeking to outwit the more powerful Spanish and Portuguese traders by discovering a north-east passage around the north of Russia to China and other lands in the East. I first heard of his remarkable journeys many years ago; finally I’ve read the account of them.

We are talking about an era when navigators had no really reliable way of knowing where they were – this wasn’t to come until the perfection of Harrison’s famous clocks nearly a couple of centuries later – so there were really journeys into the unknown: unknown places, perils, natives: would they ever return? And I’d forgotten about scurvy – apparently the British admiralty used to reckon on losing 50% of crews to the disease on lengthy voyages…

I need to make a couple of things clear: firstly, Barents didn’t survive the third journey to the Arctic, and the accounts are actually by another member of the expedition who recognised the navigator’s part in their achievement, and secondly, this isn’t an easy read. It’s a reprint of a Hakluyt Society volume from the middle of the nineteenth century. That society has been at the forefront of editing and translating memoirs and accounts of travels and explorations for over a century an a half, and its volumes are seriously academic (and expensive!), and often present very dry and detailed accounts of voyages, as in this case; I didn’t read it for pleasure.

In this volume there is much very dull and scrupulous recording of distances and directions travelled as well as depth soundings, very useful information for those who went after. Places are named for the first time, and travellers are trying the best they can to ascertain where they actually are… The men encounter serious problems with aggressive polar bears (two men are killed and partly devoured) and they have never encountered such ice before. One needs to remember how terribly small a lot of ships were in those days – often much less than 100 tons, so the size of a couple of juggernaut lorries, maximum.

The real perils, and the most interesting part of the narrative, are encountered on the third journey, where they are trapped by ice near the north-east coast of Novaya Zemlya. They realise they will have to over-winter, and build themselves a wooden hut, partly by pillaging their ship, which is raised high out of the water by the ice, and which they constantly fear will be crushed to pieces. They really cannot believe how cold it is – they have no way of measuring the temperature, of course, as we are in the days before the thermometer – and fear for their lives; when they try burning coal from the ship to keep warm they nearly kill themselves by carbon monoxide poisoning.

They live largely by trapping and eating arctic foxes, avoiding the perils of polar bears as best they can, for their guns are not really up to killing such creatures easily. Gradually they weaken physically and are overcome by scurvy. They spend the best part of ten months overwintering, finally managing to leave in June 1597, not in their ship which is forever trapped in the ice but in a pair of open boats in which they sail over 1500 miles back to civilisation. Long sick Willem Barents dies quite suddenly as the boats sail round the northern coast of Novaya Zemlya on the homeward journey.

This was truly an epic journey, even if there was a lot more I’d have liked to know, and which perhaps a more recent traveller might have included. But the astonishment doesn’t end there: in 1871 – that’s nearly 275 years later – another ship discovered the remains of the hut on the island where the men had overwintered, with the contents almost perfectly preserved in the ice…

James Shapiro: 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

November 19, 2018

51+KGzVMCUL._AC_US218_I’d been aware of Shapiro’s two books looking at particular year’s in Shakespeare’s life and creativity cycle and have finally got around to reading the first of them. Shapiro shows us just how much the dramatist was a creature of his time – which isn’t surprising at all – but does manage to marshal and present a wealth of contextual background evidence. Unfortunately the major events of 1599 centre around all the scheming of the Earl of Essex and his adventures in Ireland, and is a little dull when presented in minute detail…

But 1599 was a key year in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist as he was beginning to move away from the histories and comedies upon which he had built his considerable reputation, looking for new areas to work in: it was the year of Hamlet, for instance. And there is much on the complexity of the development and versions of the text of that play, which will be of interest to more academic readers: how do we know what was the version actually played at the time? Answer, we don’t, but it wasn’t any of the currently popular textual editions which are all far too long for the duration of Elizabethan theatrical time-slots.

We learn a good deal about the Tudor police state (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) and the myriad dangers of the times, the closing years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with no clear successor in view and various parties jockeying for influence. This helps to reveal just how political some of Shakespeare’s plays were – and even more so to his contemporary audiences who would pick up on allusions that go by us – and how carefully he trod the minefield of the times. We may ask ourselves whether in the end he was just safely fence-sitting, or extremely aware of the complexities of all the issues in play? We just need to pay careful attention to all that goes on and is alluded to in Julius Caesar to be aware of this question.

An interesting idea that had never occurred to me was Shapiro’s suggestion that the enormous popularity of the theatre at the time was because it was filling a gap that had been left by the extirpation of all the Catholic religious ritual and pageantry by the savagery of the English Reformation.

Much of what Shapiro offers in relation to Shakespeare’s life and career is necessarily speculative, but it’s valuable nevertheless in the ways it fills out a picture of the man in his times and places; the focus on a single year, which Shapiro also does in his other volume 1606, is interesting because it does give the reader a sense of being a part of all the events and among all the personages of the year.

All-in-all a worthwhile read, and I will read 1606 at some point, too. Although so much of Shakespeare’s life and adventures are unknown and now unknowable, it’s nevertheless fascinating to imagine oneself a bit deeper into the man’s life and times.

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

Peter Mundy, Merchant Adventurer

November 9, 2018

51HCMjvr2OL._AC_US160_My interest in travellers from centuries past led me, a few years ago, via the Hakluyt Society, to Peter Mundy, a merchant whose travels in the first half of the seventeenth century they published in five volumes. These I duly downloaded, intending to read them one day… which day hadn’t arrived by the time I saw this edited and commented abridgement by R E Pritchard, and came to my senses, accepting that I would never find the time – in this existence, at least – to read the real thing.

Mundy was an English merchant adventurer who travelled both for business and personal reasons, mainly quite widely in the Levant, the Middle East, India and the Chinese coast. His adventures and misadventures were no doubt all new and exciting at the time but are now often rather tiresome and repetitive, particularly as all was done in the cause of trade and money-making, rather than with the search for knowledge as the primary driving force. What is new is accidental, though Mundy nevertheless describes well, in detail, and charmingly also illustrated his diaries with sketches and drawings.

He was interested in all curiosities, creatures – especially birds, women’s attire and also unusual punishments and tortures, which are illustrated. If you want to know what being impaled actually involved, or the specific stages of being broken on the wheel, then Mundy’s your man, with the pictures to show for it.

He also travelled through southern parts of our own kingdom, and parts of Europe, including Prussia, Poland and Russia, and settled down to live in Danzig (Gdansk) for some six years or so, even though the coldness of the winters initially shocked him. I found this section particularly interesting, as there were apparently sizeable English and Scottish contingents in Danzig at the time, and he refers to travelling players coming from England, which ties in with stories of Shakespeare’s company visiting – through the man himself is not recorded as having been with them – and the contemporary Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, and its new Shakespeare theatre.

We are also reminded of the perils and difficulties of travel in those times; I was not aware of just how many men were lost on long sailing voyages in those days.

So, the shorter volume is worth a look; if I have time I’ll read volume four of his travels which deals with Poland in more detail

Philip Johnstone: High Wood

November 5, 2018

2013-09-21 09.44.12 sommeLadies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

When I first used this poem in school many years ago, I imagined it must be some sardonic reflection from long after the Great War, and I was rather shocked to discover that it had been written in 1918. Certainly, tourism of the former Western Front took off pretty rapidly after the end of the war, and the removal of corpses and obvious unexploded munitions; there are Michelin Guides from the early 1920s (some of which have been reprinted by Smiths of Easingwold, if you are interested).

The poet focuses on a real spot – I took the photo on a visit a few years ago, and the site is privately owned and not accessible to visitors – and a real battle, the Battle of the Somme. He mimics perfectly the patter of a bored tourist guide who has done this dozens of times before: the ‘Observe’, and ‘here is wire’ suggest a lecture, and there is the slight frisson implied by the reference to ‘This mound on which you stand being…’ Equally there is the concern for keeping the exhibits in good condition – ‘kindly not to touch’ / ‘the path, sir, please’ – and the references to ‘the Company’s property’. The idea of guaranteed souvenirs is macabre, perhaps, as is the suggestion that the remains of an actual corpse is on display. The ground was secured ‘at great expense’: to what expense and whose exactly is our guide referring here? And then the alliteration of the refreshments at a reasonable rate’ rounds it all off…

Except that this has not been my experience of British visitors to the war sites. I have seen coachloads of teenage schoolchildren stunned into silence at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and been moved by floral tributes left at many war cemeteries by school parties, including flowers and cards placed on German war graves. I have seen people hunting down the names of relatives on the Thiepval Memorial, seen a wreath from my former grammar school at the Menin Gate, and talked with many people involved in projects where their village had decided to hunt down and photograph the last resting-places of those war dead listed on the war memorials in the village. I noticed that it was no longer just the British who were coming to find the graves of their forebears, Germans were beginning to do the same. The only time I have ever been surprised by what I felt was inappropriate behaviour was by French visitors at their national ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun: some were noisy, loud and disrespectful.

So, although I can understand the poet’s cynicism, the idea that all the horrors would soon be forgotten, I am heartened that he has been proven wrong in his imaginings, and that ordinary people’s responses are largely silent and reverent. When I have stood in any of these places, I have been lost for words, unable to believe what I know to be the truth about what happened, faced with the reality and the enormity.

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