Quick Review: “A Small Place in Italy” (1994) by Eric Newby

Author Eric Newby (1919- 2006) is one of the more notable twentieth english travel writers. I have long been aware of his name, but up to now I hadn’t read any of his books. When I saw a copy of A Small Place in Italy  in a charity shop I bought it to see what I made of Newby.

The first point to make is that this isn’t a travel book as such, or at least it’s not an account of a journey. Instead it’s a memoir of the Italian holiday home that Newby and his wife Wanda owned between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s.

So the book is an account of life in this farmhouse that they owned, situated in the hills in the region on the Tuscan/ Ligurian border.

‘Colourful’ Italian characters and descriptions of rural life abound. Standout passages include a description of how the Newbys sought out and bought the house in the first place; an account of how they knocked the house into shape; and Newby’s account of his walk among the Appenines.

To be honest, I found that some of the longer descriptions of rural life (such as the grape harvest) were interesting enough but went on a bit too long. Indeed, the book starts of as a roughly chronological account of how they bought and did the place up in the 60s. After the first few chapters, though, that it gets more general, and the book becomes a series of vignettes and character sketches, intended no doubt to give a general flavour of what life there was like.

But the book retains its charm. I suppose it’s worth remembering the publishing context from the early 90s. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a massive publishing hit, and second home ownership among Britains looking for a place on the Continent was on the rise. Tuscany was also becoming something of a holiday magnet for the British middle class. So no doubt A Small Place in Italy was aimed at that general market.

However, it stands on its own merits as a book that would make a decent read for someone wanting to get away from it all, transported by a writer who is never less than excellent company. The final sale and taking leave of their Italian idyll was clearly a great wrench for the Newbys and so this book reads exactly as what it was: an attempt to remember and portray the good times and the good life,  and a good-natured labour of love.

 

Verdict: Not the place to start if you’re a Newbie ‘noob’. If you want to get a feel for why he’s considered one the best English travel writers start elsewhere. Otherwise, though, this is a charming and pleasant book.

 

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A review of Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin

The 2015 case of a Spanish priest, who was under investigation by civil authorities for performing a series of exorcism upon a teenaged girl with anorexia, coincided with my finishing off a book by the noted author and conservative Catholic, the late Malachi Martin.

I am neither Catholic, conservative (with either a small or large C) and neither am I possessed (so far as I or others can tell). My only link to this subject is that I recently read some Dennis Wheatley novels and I have seen The Exorcist. Suuitably qualified, I dived straight in to this odd book…

The main starting point for my reading this book was, oddly enough, Youtube. we’ve all been there: you watch a particular video and then lo and behold the site suggests similar viewing material which, on the surface, has little to do with what you’ve just watched. In my case the Youtube suggestion was of a radio interview of Martin conducted in the late 1990’s by the US talk show host Art Bell.

Art Bell is pretty much unknown in the UK. US readers will probably know who he is, viz. the original host of the late night talk show Coast to Coast AM, a program which specialises in interviews with authors and investigators on the occult, conspiracies, UFOs and all other branches of the (for the mainstream) off-limits and the arcane. With the exception of one new show there is nothing really comparable on UK commercial or public service radio, although there are some podcasts that touch on these topics.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I listened to this interview and was interested to say the least. Martin was for many years until his death at the end of the 90’s, an exorcist, an told many a story of his experiences. He was also for a long time a serving Priest, although it seems that he left the Church (in something of a huff it seems) in the mid 60’s, following the various reforms kicked off by the Second Vatican Council earlier that decade. He objected to many of the changes that took place then, which must have made Martin A VERY CONSERVATIVE CATHOLIC INDEED.

A ‘fuddy-duddy old Priest’ is how he described himself at one point in an interview with Bell, and he certainly was an old-school Catholic. This is a man for whom the traditional teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church carried weight over and above any other moral and religious teaching. It’s a mindset closer to the ‘fire and brimstone’ view of the world and of spirituality, a world away from-say- the modern Church of England with its women Priests, women Bishops, widespread grassroots support of Gay marriage (despite dissenting conservatives in the ranks) and the recent talk about dropping references to the Devil in the Baptismal services.

No. For a mind like Martin’s the Devil is real, evil is a distinct entity, demons exist and possession is a fact.

So far, so intriguing. The book “Hostage to the Devil” is artfully crafted and very well written. I do wonder the extent to whcih you could bracket it (in terms of style and form) with the ‘non-fiction novel’ approach popularised by Truman Capote in a book like In Cold Blood. There are in Martin’s book several novelistic touches. His four case studies as presented in this book read like stories in themselves.

Even if not all of them are all 100% factually true, they are still scary. I think overall, however, this is a book written not to shock or titilate, but to warn. The overall tone is one of warning and admonition. All four of the people who Martin claims were possessed all in some way deviated from the moral path as outlined by the Church.  Only the Church is capable, in martin’s view, or truly saving them. Ostensibly, then, the book is an in-depth look into the work of an Exorcist. Deep down, however, it’s a cautionary tale and an attempt to affirm the superiority of the Catholic Church.

Verdict: This is a very well written book. You may take some bits with a pinch of salt, but that probably won’t stop you from wanting to sleep with the lights on.

 

 

 

Two inside looks at the Old Boys’ network

It’s not what you know but who you know, as the old phrase goes, and it’s an annoying  fact that in modern-day Britain the old boys’ network is as strong as ever. But what are the people like who attempt to form the hearts and minds of these old boys when they are still schoolboys?

Two books which give a little insight into the policies, prodecdures and the very general  ethos of two of Britian’s ‘great public schools’ are The Old Boys’Network by the late John Rae, Headmaster of Westminster School in the 70s and 80s; and the more recently published An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education by the former Head of Eton, Tony Little.

Rae’s book is an slection of diary entries written when he was head of one Britain’s most prestigious schools, Westminster in Central London, hard by Westminster Abbey. Personally speaking, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of Head Teachers, whether they are worknig in the state or private sectors. They always strike me as being- by and large- a melancholy mixture of salesperson, chief constable and chief exectutive. If you rund a boarding school, then add prison warder to the list. Pedagogy is the last thing they seem to be concerned about.

While a lot of Rae’s book is concerned with promoting and developing his School and maintaining discipline (mainly through cracking down on illegal drug use in Westminster) to his credit he did actually balance leadership duties with some actual classroom teaching. How many secondary school heads could one say of this today? Most of them give one the impression that they are Heads precisely BECAUSE they couldn’t wait to get out the classroom. Rae, by contrast, gives me the impression that he was a very good teacher first and foremost, and it was teaching and learning that concerned him most. Everything stemmed from that.

Rae it seems to me was also somewhat out of step with the private school ethos of the time. When it comes down to it, private schools are businesses: If they don’t attract enough fee paying parents then they fold. He was an opponent of the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ a Thatcherite policy that gave financial assistance to parents who wanted their children to goto a fee paying school. This opposition it seems made him unpopular with many of his colleagues in the Headmaster’s conference.

That said, while he was something of a political liberal, he defended to the hilt the right of public schools to exist. In one passage that sticks in my mind, he describes going to a meeting where he defended schools of Westminster’s ilk, by saying that the only sure fire way to cut the public schools down to size was for state schools to get better.

Of course this is easier said than done. One could be the Head of the best performing state school in the country. But would that give one licence to, when presented with a child of middling ability who failed to get into the Oxford College of his choice, then phone round other Colleges until a place was found? Would it also give one licence to, when a boy tells you he quite fancies a career in political journalism, pop round for tea with the editor of The Times with the young man to discuss such a career? Both things Rae did, and both were thanks to the status of Westminster as a school and the old boys’ network.

Was he wrong for doing these things? I say not. But is it wrong that such a state of affairs exitsted then and still existed now? Of course it bloody well is. Several times in the book Rae acknowledges the contradiction between wanting to do his best by the children in his care, while knowing that it is merely reenforcing the old boys’ network.

 

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (despite the rather pompous title which is no fault of Little’s, the book being published as part of a series of “Intelligent Person’s” guides) is a decent read. Now while I see Eton as one of the very bastions of cronyism in this country, Little has some commonsense ideas about education. While one could take issue with some of what he says, the passages dealing with the practical changes he’d like to make to the general education system in this country in particular make for very interesting reading. It’s rather sad that some of them- like students applying for university AFTER they have their A Level results- are sensible ideas of the kind that Governments neither deabte not propose.

Indeed, the last two (Coalition and Conservative) adminsitrations have been notably guilty of imposing wholesale changes to curriculum and school administration, and fallen into the trap of overloading teachers and pupils with too much, too soon. Perhaps it is the fact that by and large they remain largely aloof from all this meddling and attempts to reinvent the pedagogical wheel, that ensures the strongest fee-paying schools are able to focus squarely on securing the best advantages for their pupils. Largely untouched, they can concentrate on doing what they are paid to do: grinding out the results and greasing the wheels of the Old Boys’ Network.