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Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

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Reading in a rush…

August 30, 2017

I know there are people who only ever read books once; there are books I only ever read once, but, as many of my readers will know, there’s greater and added pleasure in going back to a favourite novel over and over again as the years go by. Every time, there’s something different that we can latch on to, observe, follow, and our appreciation of an author is undeniably enriched by such re-reading.

I can remember introducing this idea to students at school, pointing out that our first read-through of a novel is inevitably plot-driven, as we are keen to know what happens, and how everything turns out; when we know that, we will slow down and be capable of noticing different things on a second and further subsequent reads. Clearly, this is also a helpful tactic when it comes to revision.

And now I find myself victim of that first read, gripped by a novel so that I’m conscious of cantering through it, and aware that I’m missing quite a few things, but at the same time happy with this in the knowledge that I’ll re-read the book again soon, more slowly and carefully. That novel is Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena, which I should have read years ago and have finally got around to. It’s not a science fiction or a fantasy novel as one might have expected, but a historical one, and I’m keen to see where she gets with both plot and characters in a novel that’s far from predictable. I’ll write about it when I’ve finished.416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_

So, this ex-teacher and something of an expert on literature is, in the end, no different from any other reader, despite my knowledge and skill-set: plot grips me just like anyone else. And, preparing this post, I remembered other books I’ve raced through: all four books of Philip Reeve‘s Mortal Engines series – it’s time to come back to them – and both of Anthony Horowitz‘s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, both of which I re-read within weeks, Harper Lee‘s Go Set A Watchman, which it’s also time to go back to and reflect on with a bit of hindsight. And, of course, when the new Philip Pullman comes out early in October, I shall have my copy on Day 1 and set aside everything else to rattle through it… can’t wait!61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_

The anally-retentive reader…

July 31, 2017

I’ve kept a reading log for about 45 years now: I just log the date I finish reading a book and its title. I bought a very large and sturdy ledger in a sale about that long ago, and it’s served me well. So I can quite easily survey what I’ve read over the years and how much I’ve been reading – or not. And in pencil, I also note inside the back cover of each book, the date I finished reading it, which means I can always know how long it is since I read a particular book, how many times I’ve read it, or indeed if I’ve ever read it.

It’s not a lot of information, but I’ve found it interesting to note that I’m reading far less in my retirement than I originally expected to: partly, I’ve taken on board longer and more demanding books, I think, and also I have a raft of other things to occupy my time. I’d had bright ideas like spending a year re-reading Shakespeare, or a year reading science fiction, and never even got started on either of those projects. And I’ve also been astonished, when coming back to some of my old favourites, by just how long had elapsed since I last read them…

I’ve also kept an accessions register of all my books ever since I was at secondary school, which at some point when I had the spare time, got developed into a database; now I can quite easily check whether I have a particular book before I end up uselessly buying it for a second time… and I can do all the usual database things with my list of books, by author and subject-matter and so on. Dry and dull but useful, especially as I can also take a slimmed down version of it with me on my smartphone. I suppose it is also useful for insurance purposes, if anyone ever decided to steal a ton of books, or anything worse were to happen…

No doubt someone with a more statistical bent than I have might glean all sorts of useful and interesting information that I’ve never suspected; until I decide to build a second database of all the books I’ve read – some 3000 or so since my school days – that information will just lie dormant. But for the minimal amount of effort it’s taken over the years, I do commend the kind of record-keeping I’ve outlined, to serious readers out there, as a mine of useful information in all sorts of ways.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

More second-hand bookshops…

June 25, 2017

One of the things I always enjoy on holiday is visiting second-hand bookshops (in spite of my vow not to buy any more books) and after our recent holiday in Suffolk I feel moved to enthuse about two really good ones, both to be found in the village of Westleton, a couple of miles inland from the famous village of Dunwich, the mediaeval town swallowed by the sea…

I’d been to Chapel Books before, on previous holidays to this part of the country, which we like very much. As its name suggests, it’s in a converted chapel. There was a very large selection of books, well-arranged and all of decent quality. The travel section – always a touchstone for me – was particularly good, and I came away with some interesting swag, including another of the wonderful cerise Penguin series from the 1940s, by a communist woman journalist who reported from the Soviet Union shortly after the Nazi invasion. There were lots of books I managed to resist, fortunately for my wallet and the space in our house. The owner was friendly, and provided tea whilst I browsed.

The other shop – Barnabees – I’d not known about before, was five minutes walk away in a large cottage. The owner was very friendly and we chatted about all manner of things, and I came away with a couple of things I’d been looking for. Her shop was not as well organised and categorised as she would have liked, she admitted, but again the stock was wide-ranging and good quality, with a particular emphasis on art.

I mention these two shops because they are exceptions to the general rule in a number of ways, I feel: friendly owners, good quality stock – I’ve lost count of the number of shops where I feel that most of the mouldering books should have been in a skip or recycled long since; pretty well-organised – again, many shops could be tidied up by a well-placed bomb; and sensible prices – not given away, but not taking the mick either, as was the case in another shop in a nearby town which I will not name, where the owner had decided that all paperbacks should be four quid, no matter what the age or condition…

Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

February 23, 2017

51yhyoyvael-_ac_us218_I’m not quite sure why I went back to this, 42 years after I last read it as an undergraduate. But it was an interesting little digression: Rasselas, the privileged prince, escapes from the happy valley where the emperor’s offspring are confined and determines to explore the world and find out what to do with his life; he’s pretty quickly tied up in the philosophical problem of whether to work out the best way to happiness and contentment or to get on with actually living life…

It was published in 1759, exactly the same year as Voltaire’s Candide, which it immediately reminded me of, except that Voltaire’s conte is more obviously and deliberately satirical, whereas Johnson’s tale mocks lightly while ultimately bringing our naive hero gently to his senses.

Rasselas discovers there’s no happiness to be found in stasis: we must always be striving for something new, and we also need to see and experience misery in order to recognise happiness. Is it better to get on with living and enjoying life, rather than trying to plan ahead to achieve perfection? Equally, it’s important to be yourself, rather than to imitate someone else, or to strive to be someone you are not: there is no place for gurus. It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. As the prince, his sister and their companions travel around, everyone they meet who initially appears to have found the answers and to be happy, is actually dissatisfied in some way with their lot…

Johnson also explores the contrast between innocence and experience, which William Blake was to present in his songs some thirty years later: would it be better to just be satisfied with the state of innocence in which Rasselas begins? or perhaps explore and experience the world and then go back to seclusion? Where can there be true happiness, in that forever sheltered state of initial innocence or some carefully sought out, deliberately tried and tested path, from which clearly it’s not possible to return to the womb, as it were?

We are in the early days of the development of the novel, it occurred to me: Fielding’s Tom Jones was published ten years earlier, and what a difference! True, Rasselas isn’t really a novel, and has a philosophical purpose whereas Fielding sets out to divert and entertain. I was struck, nevertheless, by how sophisticated Tom Jones was as a text, by comparison, in terms of form, structure and language, but above all, characterisation. Rasselas is didactic, a tale of ideas, and also part of prose fiction finding its feet, writers exploring the potential of a new form, but it’s not a book I gaze fondly at on the shelves of my library…

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

The Shipping Forecast

December 28, 2016

517com7q2bl-_ac_us160_This kind of book is known as a stocking-filler; I was very glad to find it in mine. It was compiled by the BBC, who broadcast the shipping forecast although they don’t produce it; it’s been a bit of a rush-job as a stocking-filler because the editor hasn’t found all of the silly little errors which should have been picked up during proof-reading.

I don’t know when I first heard the shipping forecast. I do remember gale warnings on the wireless when I was a child; presumably they were broadcast on the Light Programme as that was the long-wave station at the time. These were always precisely worded, and used the area names we are familiar with; they always began solemnly, “Attention all shipping, especially in sea areas….”

It took a while to learn how to decode the mysterious terminology: you gradually realise that the announcer is going round the coast in a more-or-less clockwise direction, then that the information concerns wind speed, wind direction, visibility; these are predictions, followed by reports from coastal stations which are actual readings, and also add barometric pressure, and whether it’s rising or falling. The pace and tone of voice are important for comprehensibility as anyone familiar with listening to AM radio from far-off stations will understand.

Much later on, I also came across the inshore waters forecast, which is exactly what it says it is; again we travel clockwise around the coast of Britain, this time the names are different, the pace isn’t quite so slow and solemn, and the information doesn’t seem quite as ominous…

The book takes you through all 31 sea areas and we learn the origins of the names, their history – some of the names have changed over time, some new ones have been added like the Utsires, which were never there in my childhood and came as rather a shock when I first met them; there is information about temperatures, wave heights and the like in each sea area and a few interesting snippets about them. Waves the height of seven double-decker buses are not anything I ever wish to encounter.

The shipping forecast has been romanticised over the past few years and treated to a number of books in its honour. I suppose it is part of our cultural heritage in a way and a strong reminder that we live on an island. It is very restful, peaceful, soothing if one listens to the late-night version (which I’ve only heard a few times), clearly holding a small place in the affections of many as well as performing a vital task, though perhaps less vital in our more technological days. And this book is a soothing tribute to it.

My A-Z of Reading: K is for Knowledge

November 25, 2016

knowledge_magazine_and_encyclopaedia_issue_1A little knowledge (well, actually it was learning, but that won’t fit so neatly with my subject) is a dangerous thing, said someone, once, long ago.

Part works are a curious publishing phenomenon, a great way of tying you in to buying something every week for a long time, and thereby ensuring a regular income stream; nowadays all sorts of utterly bonkers things are on offer, usually in that dead ‘nobody has much money left’ after-Christmas period, but when I was young it was all sorts of good and wholesome things like encyclopaedias and history books that built up week-by-week.

Knowledge was one of those magazines; it was carefully designed so that it would built up into a proper encyclopaedia for children over a period of four years: it eventually built up into eighteen volumes (for which you could, of course, buy hideous, cheap and crappy binders) each with a table of contents and an index; you removed the outer cover, and then all the pages were sequentially numbered as in a proper book; the covers could also be bound up into another quick reference work. The magazine was evidently pretty successful, as it ran through four editions. My parents bought it for me – two shillings, later half-a-crown a week.

I’ve found myself thinking about these encyclopaedias quite a bit lately; I need to finish binding them all properly, about fifty years after I acquired and read them all, and now that I have a grandson, I’ve wondered vaguely whether he may one day enjoy looking at them…

Although it was apparently an Italian invention, Knowledge was clearly modelled on Arthur Mee’s famous Children’s Encyclopaedia of the nineteen-thirties, a ten-volume compilation of all sorts of knowledge, puzzles and patriotism that is still to be found in secondhand bookshops and at jumble sales even today. We had it in the classroom in whatever was Year 6 back then, and I devoured it… good wholesome stuff that instilled in me the intellectual curiosity that’s driven me ever since.

The clever thing about Knowledge was that, although encyclopaedic in its scope, it didn’t present material in alphabetical order, which would have been a sure-fire way to turn any child off. Instead, a range of the various branches of knowledge were visited in each magazine, in articles of from one to three pages, all illustrated in colour – a bit of a novelty at the time – not photographs but drawings and painted illustrations, the point being that they brought the topic to life and livened up the pages. But the text was detailed, continuous prose: a topic was covered in decent depth. I felt I’d learned something when I finished an article.

Reading the magazines helped me in several ways. I got a broad picture of all the different areas of knowledge, and I gradually came to see which areas interested me and appealed to me more than others: history, geography, astronomy in particular. And then gradually, over time, I could see how lots of different and separate ideas started to link together. Usually I would read each magazine from cover to cover as soon as I got it, and then later I would go through them again and concentrate on the articles which I found especially interesting.

So began my introduction to the wide world of knowledge and understanding. It was money well-spent by my parents; my dad started binding the magazines properly for me, and I learned bookbinding along the way, but he never finished the task. I’ve still got all the books and magazines and will be returning to them, and finishing off the binding along the way…

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