Posts Tagged ‘librivox’

First World War poetry: more for students

December 14, 2021


If you’re going to write intelligently about poetry and the First World War, you need to know and understand something about that war, to be able to judge how it affected the many writers who fought and were killed during those four and a half appalling years. You don’t need to read a history book, but you do need an outline that you understand of what led up to the war, the major battles, the aftermath, and the effects on those who survived. This link takes you to a short-ish account I wrote as an outline for my students. I’m not a historian; it doesn’t set out to be impartial, but to make you think, and if you are seriously interested, then you can search for more to read. I’ve also prepared a list of all sorts of reference material and other texts you might at least like to consider looking up.

Maybe you, or someone in your family, has visited some of the sites of battles in Flanders or France, perhaps in search of a relative who was killed. Ask them about their impressions of those places.

If you like listening to stuff, then this website – librivox – has a number of different accounts by people who took part in the war in many different ways, read by volunteers as audiobooks into the public domain (ie they’re free). Do a search.

Do some thinking about form. Why were there so many poets, or so much poetry written during that war? Far more, and it seems, far better than came out of the Second World War. Easier to scribble a few lines in a dugout or a trench, into a notebook? You can hardly write a novel or a play in an underground bunker. What can you do with in a poem, that you cannot do so easily in a novel or in a play? Equally, consider what you can do well in a play, or in a novel? If you’re sitting down to write something longer, having survived where your mates haven’t, then you have the time to look back, to think about and reflect on what you went through… What are the advantages of each of these literary forms? If you’re thinking at this level, and able to explain some of your ideas, then you are heading into the highest grade territory, not that that’s the only reason for doing it…

Take your thoughts to another level, and realise that there were many countries involved in what was a world war, and not only the British wrote about it: find out something about what the French, or the Germans wrote from their perspective. Think about the fact that although hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed, Britain wasn’t overrun and occupied by the Germans, whereas all of Belgium and large parts of France were. What difference might that have made?

Finally for this piece, do not be afraid of your own opinions and reactions: be ready to express them, as clearly as you can. As long as you can support your comments with evidence from the text you’re writing about, what you have to say is valid and worthy of credit. You can like something, or not like it, it’s doesn’t matter as long as you can explain and show why you feel like that.

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

February 18, 2021

Another book about a plague wiping out humanity, one to add to many that I’ve already read. This is more of a novella than a novel, and shows some of the limitations of London’s writing, I think.

Set in 2073, it’s sixty years after the Scarlet Plague (also known as the Red Death) virtually eliminated the human race. The last man alive to remember it is wandering the territory of the old United States with three of his young grandsons; they are alternately quite affectionate towards the old man, then tease and play tricks on him, and are also irritated and confused by the way he speaks. This last point was one of the more interesting ideas, for the old man – in his previous existence a professor of English Literature – has a wide and varied vocabulary which contains many words the younger ones have no need for or understanding of, their entire post-apocalyptic world being far simpler than his used to be. And they have skills which he has not.

They are, however, interested in his stories of the old world and its wonders and marvels, and also how the change came about, which is the frame for the story, of course. A plague broke out; it caused a rapid death once the main symptom, a reddening of the complexion, was visible – one might last a couple of hours. Dead bodies decomposed very rapidly, aiding the spread of the germs, and it seems clear one could carry and pass on the disease before symptoms become evident. Obviously civilisation broke down very rapidly indeed in such circumstances. London was a socialist, and so he briefly has the oppressed of the world wreaking some revenge on their former masters, until they too succumb. The educated and well-off try to segregate themselves in order to survive, to no avail. It is also clear that at the time of the outbreak of the plague, the US was no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy or plutocracy.

Few survive, but enough to allow a simple tribal existence to emerge; there are perhaps a few hundred people in the whole of the former western US; nothing is known of the rest of the world. The old man is concerned for the preservation of knowledge and has buried a selection of books he thinks may be useful, but literacy has already died out… London is not very subtle; once the old man is in the flow of his narrative, the young boys fade out, no longer interrupting or mocking him.

Humanity wiped out by a plague is done far more interestingly by Mary Shelley in The Last Man, and by George Stewart in Earth Abides; it did strike me that Stewart may well have been inspired by London’s tale to write his far better novel…

The novella is available to download free from Project Gutenberg; an audiobook is available at

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

American novels for a lockdown

April 16, 2020

Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always like this novel. It’s far more dark and serious than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is basically a kid’s adventure story (a very good one, at that!). The hero has to wrestle seriously with his conscience about the rights and wrongs of helping an escaped slave, and works out his moral dilemma for himself and lives with his decision and the consequences. It’s a novel about freedom, in the romantic sense of the early days of the US and people moving westwards to do their own thing. Sadly, it’s frowned upon a lot nowadays because Twain used a certain word, common parlance at the time, if derogatory, but which is now probably the most unusable and unacceptable word in our language. This is a silly reason to reject a novel: contextual understanding is all. I taught the book several times and we found a way to deal with that issue. If you have the time, there is a brilliant recording of the novel available on the Librivox website (look for the one by Mark Smith).

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird. I lost count of the number of times I taught this marvellous novel for GCSE. Thanks to the idiocy of a one-time ‘education’ secretary it’s now not allowed to be used, because it’s not by a British author; colleagues miss it deeply, for it allows so many issues crucial in the lives of teenagers and young people to be explored as you turn its pages. Yes, it romanticises issues and avoids others, but it plants the question of racism firmly on the agenda, along with relationships between parents and children, and growing up. It’s a deeply humane novel, in spite of its flaws.

Jack Kerouac: On The Road. One from my hippy days – gosh, how long ago! The open road, the yearning for freedom, time to do what you like, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it opens up the possibility to dream at that age. I don’t think I could read it now, I have to say, but that doesn’t take away the magical influence it exerted on me in my misspent youth, and I don’t regret it.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22. The war novel to underline the utter absurdity of warfare, the pointlessness, the profiteering, the incompetence of commanders, the fear. It’s a tour-de-force, with its craziness providing very dark humour – but real humour – and its seriousness in places is truly spine-chilling, for instance, as Snowden’s secret is finally uncovered. Although it wasn’t written during the Second World War, that’s the setting, and it’s surely the best novel in that setting. The greta American war novel, probably the great twentieth century American novel.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces. This is just so funny. I’ve read it several times, and there are still places where it has me in hopeless fits of laughter. As it’s not long since I last read it, I’ll just point you here.

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Reflections on utopias (1)

August 21, 2018

I’ve been thinking about utopias again, more specifically utopian novels and their flaws and defects, prompted by what I think I’d have to call the only really religious utopian novel I’ve come across. Driving around the country, I’ve been listening to Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szyrma, a Polish-English nineteenth-century writer. (Yes, another of those Librivox audiobooks!) Very briefly, an Oxford student meets a mysterious person whilst travelling in France. He meets him several times in different places, and we quickly get the impression there is something uncanny or unusual about him. He’s eager to travel widely and learn as much as he can, and clearly knows very little about Earth, its people, nations and habits. He effects an almost miraculous, and never-explained rescue of the narrator from the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. He’s clearly a very spiritual creature and is given an introduction by the narrator to a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and who eventually uncovers the secret, that the mysterious person is a visitor from the planet Venus. Shortly after this, our visitor leaves Earth, after having allowed the vicar a glimpse of life on his home planet. Several years later a detailed communication is delivered, relating Aleriel’s travels to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other worlds.

Eternal life?

Venusians live for ever, and spend much time worshipping the Creator in huge temples; they do not know war, violence, famine or poverty, and so Earth clearly comes off pretty badly by comparison. Martians are not eternal, but they have a similar spiritual reverence for the Creator, and have at some point in their past been visited by the ‘Holy One’ who taught them how to live righteously; they have constructed themselves a utopian society of plenty and stability, and once again Earth looks poor by comparison: whilst Martians have heeded the teachings of their Holy One, the implication is that on Earth we have not responded to those of Jesus Christ. This idea of a Creator and a spirituality common to three planets (and, indeed, taken for granted) is quite well developed if a little overbearing and hectoring at times. However, because of the nature of utopian writing, fascinating theological issues that writer such as such as James Blish raised in A Case of Conscience are unvoiced.

I remember years ago being shocked by the utopian world of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time because they made the choice to execute people who would not conform to the ways of their perfect society; the Martians do the same…

Kill the misfits?

And so I am back with all sorts of questions that utopias raise, that last moral one in particular. If you have carefully and painstakingly built a perfect society of equality and plenty, based on fairness and sharing and so on, and one or two people refuse to play, and challenge, or behave ‘anti-socially’ and thus perhaps endanger the future of that society, do you have any alternative other than to – in some way – remove such people? Huxley, in Brave New World, could not fully face up to this and their rebels were exiled to various islands where they could be supervised to ensure they did not contaminate the utopia. But if someone really does not want to belong…

The broader picture is that utopias do not do democracy, which we all know from our experience is flawed enough, but is supposed to be the least worst system we have available. Again, if you have constructed a perfect society, why would you give anyone the opportunity to vote against it, and downgrade it? There are arguments current that less democratic, or even authoritarian societies – the Chinese Communist one for instance – may have a better chance when it comes to dealing with the ecological and environmental crises the planet faces, because they can plan and act for the long-term and are not hamstrung by short-term electoral game-playing in the ways that our democratic Western societies are.

Can utopia be a human place, or are its citizens/members inevitably no longer humans as we know them, having lost various rights which we currently imagine to be crucial to our existence and our freedom? Look again at Brave New World, where the problem, it seems to me, is not that society’s control of its members per se, but the fact that a new race has been bred and conditioned, which we would not recognise as human if we met them. Whether or not we might like to live there, and whether or not we could live there, are two additional avenues of speculation. To be continued…

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

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