Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

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On photography

September 13, 2018

I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, when a Polish cousin gave me a basic Soviet 35mm camera on my first visit to Poland. He was a keen photographer who had a darkroom of sorts at home, and when I got back to school in England I spent more time with a friend in the school darkroom learning about processing black and white film.

One of the first things I bought myself when I moved to Lancaster in the late 1970s was a good quality camera, an Olympus OM10, and I’ve never looked back since then. I’ve never been able to get my mind around very much of the technicality of exposure, depth of field and the like, sadly, having been rather useless at physics at school, so I’m sure I’ve never fully explored what this very rewarding hobby has to offer.

Whilst I do take some portraits from time to time, what I really like most is outdoor photography, of landscapes, nature and buildings, and this is where I take most time and care, because I want my shots to be good. I will spend ages waiting for people to move away out of shot so I get my picture without them; the same with trying to avoid having traffic in my pictures. I like to frame my shots carefully: when I used a film camera this was important because it was expensive to waste shots, and I suppose this is where I learnt the little I know about how to get a decent picture; now that it’s possible to take almost unlimited numbers of pictures with a digital camera, I’m still as careful with framing a shot, obsessive sometimes about getting the exact image I want in the frame. I try to remember the effect of a picture taken from a different height, ie not just at eye-level when I’m standing, and I also like shots that aren’t necessarily level, looking upwards in order to capture interesting aspects of an object or building. And finally, of course, photography allows me to create a record of my travels to enjoy later and bring back memories.

I enjoy going to exhibitions of photography, and am often astonished by what true professionals achieve. When I went to the Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool last autumn, there was an exhibition of portraits from the 1930s by the German photographer August Sander which was truly stunning, and while in Arles the other week I saw some fascinating monochrome landscapes and close-ups by a French photographer from the 1940s whose name I have, annoyingly, forgotten.

I also found myself reflecting on why I detest all those painted portraits in art galleries – old masters? – which seemed to me to be attempts at photography before its time, if you get my meaning, and yet which I almost invariably find utterly unbelievable and unconvincing. Photography does it perfectly, for me. It has something to do with sharpness of image, as well as use of light and shadow, and the close-ups that are possible with the newer medium. And somehow monochrome can enhance the image, whilst at the same time being less true to life than the colours of the portrait painters of the past. Maybe it’s also the informality that photography allows, that portrait painting couldn’t…. It seems to me, in my relatively limited understanding of both art and photography, that it was the invention of the latter that finally allowed art to break free of the constraints of being representative, and to move in new directions.

It took me a long time to accept digital photography, and to buy a digital camera -a modest Nikon D3100 – but I now do like the ability to take as many pictures as I like and then select and keep the most successful ones. And they don’t clutter up the world like packets of photos and albums did, and it’s a lot easier to spend time revisiting them…

August favourites: coda

August 31, 2018

That was an interesting month; hard work but enjoyable, and if you’ve read all those posts, you know a lot more about my choices and preferences than you did before (probably). It’s been quite a popular month in terms of visits, comments and likes, which is good. Thank you to everyone who visited, especially if you also commented. However, I also discovered, as I was writing, that not all my chosen subjects lend themselves easily to adequate treatment in a single paragraph or so; perhaps I will return to some topics in greater depth in the coming weeks and months.

Meantime, thank you all for reading and commenting; normal (?) service will now be resumed…

Paul Theroux: Deep South

May 28, 2018

51mXwxzI4VL._AC_US218_This book annoyed me; it felt like a lazy book, in need of decent editing.

I’ve enjoyed travel writing by Paul Theroux in the past, but it has been about his travels in other countries than his own; here he travels through the Deep South of the US for a year, visiting and revisiting at different seasons of the year. He clearly feels deep affection for his country and this part of it, strives to know the region and its people and to understand it, strives to describe and report fairly about a region that has experienced many troubles. And yet, ultimately, I was rather bored.

The book began badly for me, with Theroux mocking a good number of other writers who have made road trips around the US, attempting to show them up to be fakes or imposters who hadn’t travelled properly, who took short-cuts, who pretended to have done what they hadn’t.

It’s very loosely written, rambling often: sketches, vignettes, cameos, all trying to build up an accretive picture of the Deep South. For a non-American reader, there were too many names and too much detail, and no map at all; perhaps some of the names and places may be familiar to an American reader, I don’t know. Perhaps one needs to be an American and to be familiar with the country to appreciate the book, in which case sorry, but the writer hasn’t done his job properly.

There’s much interweaving of references to the literature of the South as well; I failed once in an attempt to read a William Faulkner novel (not that I’m proud of that), and his caustic and snarky remarks about To Kill A Mockingbird came across as the words of a man who thinks he knows the South better, and ‘real’ Southern fiction better, than everyone else. Maybe he does, but Harper Lee‘s novel is far more than he allows it to be…

The country comes across as quite scary in many ways; there’s the inevitable racism and violence, the gun shows, the details of events from the past. I was deeply shocked, even though I have read about it before, by the details of the abject and grinding poverty and third world conditions he describes in so many small towns in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. Shocked, too, by the stories about US military nuclear facilities, which fit into the Chernobyl pattern in terms of carelessness, sloppiness, lack of care for people and the environment.

I had been looking forward to reading the book and wanting to enjoy it, but didn’t; it needed editing to make it shorter and less shapeless, and a bit more thought for non-American readers, really. Sadly, it felt self-indulgent, in need of a bit more anger, perhaps…

Caveat emptor

November 27, 2017

A post about buying second-hand books, with a bit of a moan…

I’ve been buying second-hand books for years. Sometimes it’s because a book is out of print, sometimes I’ve come across something I didn’t know of in a shop and fancied reading it, and sometimes I go for a cheaper copy because I’m not that sure whether I’ll like something or want to keep it for very long.

There are two ways of buying a used book: from a real shop, and online. In a real shop, you know what you are getting, quality-wise: you can examine the book, its binding, and see whether there are any pen marks or anything else you don’t like about it. You will know if it stinks of ancient cigar-smoke. Some second-hand bookshops are a disgrace, so disordered that they could be tidied up by throwing in a grenade. I tend to leave in frustration. Most are reasonably organised. Most are reasonably priced, too, though occasionally it’s obvious an owner is having a laugh with his prices – think of a figure, then double it kind of thing. Charity shops are another issue: some haven’t a clue about pricing, in which case there are either amazing bargains to be had, or such silly prices for a book that again, you have to leave in frustration.

And then there’s the internet, now a veritable minefield, and where one is most likely to get one’s fingers burned. If what you click on is what you get, in terms of described condition, then that’s fine. Often it’s not. Second-hand shops generally adhere to quite a careful and detailed code for describing the state of a book when they sell online; others do not, particularly sellers on ebay, and on the aggregate websites like amazon, abebooks and the like.

What happens when something isn’t as described? You can take the hit – I don’t. I always complain. Amazon is pretty good and pretty prompt at dealing with issues, even though I have to confess that I don’t like dealing with this behemoth in any of its forms and avoid it as much as possible. You usually get a satisfactory conclusion – a full or partial negotiated refund. Abebooks – part of the amazon empire – isn’t so helpful, as I discovered a couple of years ago when a print-on-demand version of a rare book from India wasn’t as described. They abdicated almost all responsibility, wanted me to return the book first – to India! at my cost! and hope for a successful refund. Ha ha! Lesson learned, and abebooks has lost my business.

Others carp and cavil and try to fob you off with partial refunds, as World of Books did recently. But if a book is of such poor quality that it should never have been put for sale described as in VERY GOOD condition (!) then a partial refund for something you wouldn’t have given any money for if you’d actually seen it, is no consolation. Or, as with a two volume reference set that I could only source from the USA, which turned out, without advertising it, only to be selling volume 1 (!) – what is the point? Money wasted.

So, as I said, I complain. Politely, but moaning in full detail about my disappointment, with copious details of what has fallen short. Because I don’t think people should be allowed to get away with it, and it’s our inertia if we do nothing that encourages them to carry on in that vein. Most of the time, I have had my money refunded in the end. And the book, if useless to me , goes to a charity shop.

Whatever is for sale, it’s a jungle out there. I love the fact that I can find out about books I never knew existed, and can source them from all corners of the globe. As a book-lover, I wouldn’t be without it. I will pay good money for good books I’ve been searching for. But I will call out those sellers who think they can fob us off with rubbish, with books not as described, with stuff that belongs in a skip.

Normal service will be resumed in my next post…

On the Russian Revolution…

November 20, 2017

51Miyo3yZPL._AC_US218_51FPyNJH1-L._AC_US218_I’ve been aware that the centenary of the Great October Revolution was last week, in spite of the Putin regime’s efforts to ignore it, and I have been looking through some of my books of photographs and propaganda posters from that era as I have reflected on one of the key moments of the twentieth century, as well as one of its failed experiments. David King‘s Red Star Over Russia is astonishing, and if I don’t succeed in getting to the current exhibition at Tate Britain, this book will serve as a substitute. And Soviet Posters – the Sergio Grigorian Collection is also pretty good.

I have no flag to fly for Stalinism and its excesses, which included invading Poland and imprisoning my father along with tens of thousands of his comrades and, I suppose, indirectly led to myself… The Soviet economic experiment ended in failure, though how much of that was due to inherent weaknesses and how much to the determination of the rest of the (capitalist) world that it must fail at all costs, is very hard to say. And the Soviet Union and its horrendous sacrifices defeated the might of Nazi Germany; compared with the Soviet losses the West gave relatively little, and again, the leaders of the West were quite happy for the Soviets to bear the brunt of the losses and consequently weaken itself.

The Soviets also, in a sense, won the space race, in that their efforts and research led to many of the real and enduring successes, including the space stations, and international co-operation in space; compared with this, out of a sense of panic the US committed itself to winning the race to the moon, threw money at it and did win it, and promptly lost steam; NASA has never really been terribly clear since what its purpose is…

If everything about the Soviet system had been so grim and awful as Western propaganda liked (and still likes) to paint it, there would surely not be all the nostalgia for it that does exist in many of the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia itself, although again, the current hegemony does its best to bury it. So what do people miss? According to articles and interviews I’ve read, a sense of joint, collective endeavour, striving for a shared goal. Jobs for everyone. At least you had a job, however pointless it might have been, and you might have been sent to the back of beyond to do it; with it came a wage or salary, enough to provide the basics of existence. People did often say, ‘we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us’, but the grimness of unemployment was unknown.

There was basic housing, fuel, power and lighting at nominal cost, for all, too. The scandal of homelessness did not exist. Housing might have been cramped and basic, but it was there, and affordable, as was public transport at very low cost. Books, magazines, newspapers, cinema, theatre, all were subsidised.

What was wrong with the system? Everything was grim and grey; I went and saw it. Consumer durables were very thin on the ground, luxuries unavailable. You couldn’t say what you liked, criticise the government, have a meaningful vote, travel abroad… Religious practice was strictly curtailed or even forbidden.

What we have here is a classic case of the opposition of the two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to: under the Soviet system, while you were free from a lot of things, you weren’t free to do a lot of things. And your response to these two freedoms or the lack of them, very much depends on where you are starting from. Many people on the planet – in the Third World, in less developed countries perhaps – might settle for freedom from; here in the West, having been tempted by the successes of capitalism for so long, it’s the freedom to that we want, and are horrified by the thought of not having. It’s all about perspective…

So between the efforts of the West and the failings of the system itself, the experiments failed. And we are taught that the experiment failed for ever, that there’s no point in trying again. But is that really the case?O

Philip Hughes: A Popular History of the Reformation

November 7, 2017

51e6r1aeoCL._AC_US218_An account of the Reformation from a Catholic perspective is a rare thing, and this one is over sixty years old; for Catholics, the Reformation is usually something to regret and condemn, rather than attempt to understand. After more than forty years of not being a Catholic, however, I still find the beliefs of that Church rather more humane than those of Protestants, particularly when they write about salvation and damnation, the elect, and the doctrine of predestination: Catholics seem to place far more emphasis on the individual conscience, on humans doing their best, and on a God that would understand human weakness…

Philip Hughes wrote from a Catholic, universalist perspective; his book is not an all-encompassing tome like MacCulloch‘s. He goes for the broad-brush approach, and offers a useful sketch of the pre-Reformation world with which few non-Catholics would disagree, I think. He is strongly, though guardedly critical of the failings of the mediaeval (Catholic) Church and the abuses that went on, showing an understanding of the complexities of things, though he does seem to slip into an apologia occasionally… perhaps one has to take into account the times and circumstances in which he was writing. So, serious flaws are admitted, whilst at the same time he does put the best possible gloss on the Church’s achievements, and contrives to ignore completely the horrific deeds of the Inquisition, the massacres of the Cathars and quite a lot more.

As one might expect, he offers a sturdy, orthodox and convincing Catholic demolition of Luther‘s teachings on justification, righteousness and salvation by faith alone; he does a great job of pointing out the flaws, illogicalities and inconsistencies in the reformers, at times slipping into ridicule, which I find inappropriate and uncharitable in such a book. Sarcasm is not necessary; a more measured approach would have left reformers to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. So I was disappointed by a certain Catholic blinkeredness, overall, and could not recommend this as the only book one read on the subject.

His particular specialism is the Reformation in England, which is also the title of his major work – I must go back and re-read it – and here he is much clearer and stronger; His broad sweep shows the royal process and complete control of the Reformation in England, using the absolute power the Tudors enjoyed, and some very capable henchmen, as well as the overarching financial motivation behind the seizure of church property and the destruction of the monasteries. The hypocrisy of the jobsworths who made careers and fortunes out of doing first Henry VIII’s and then Edward’s bidding, turned tail under Mary and then again under Elizabeth – the Cromwells and Cranmers – is laid shockingly bare. Hughes voices understandable Catholic sadness over Mary’s short and horribly ill-advised reign, and then it’s all over: a highly managed and political Elizabethan settlement that has forty years to embed itself… the English Reformation wasn’t really about religion at all.

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?

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.

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