Quick Review: “John Macnab” by John Buchan.

Back to the Buchan for me. I enjoy the Hannay novels greatly (dodgy Tory politics and off-colour remarks about jewish and black people aside). At his heart, Buchan is a master of plot and pacing. There is absoloutely no beating around the bush with this writer: He knows where he’s going and he never loses the reader on the way.

As with Hannay’s best stories, then, so with John Macnab. Unlike the Hannay books, the tone here is lighter by dint of a more light hearted plot. Set at the time of its writing in the 1920s, the book concerns three men (an emminent barrister,  a Cabinet Minister and a City bigshot) all of whom are in their early 40s. They are rather jaded and suffering from enuui, a sense of everything being too easy in life and of nothing providing them with much of a challenge any more.

I suppose I too would be more than a little bored and on the lookout for some diversion, if I were able to do my job with my eyes closed and had no money worries whatsoever. Strictly speaking, these aren’t the most engaginng characters in the world. We have a barrister who doesn’t really care about his clients’ cases; a Cabinet Minister who feels like he’s on autopilot (at one point Buchan descrbies him giving an off-the-cuff speech which is all waffle, consisting of platitudes stiched together from previous speeches given elsewhere); and a City high flier who I can imagine being more interested in watching raindrops fall down a window pane than counting his dough). How the heart bleeds.

Nonetheless, Buchan’s storytelling skill manages to invest this upper class ragbag with enough inherent interest to keep the story going. What these three need is an escape. Together they cook up a plan based on a tale they hear, about a man who a few years previously felt rather the same way. His way out was to poach fish and deer from properties that bordered his Highland property.

Duly inspired, these three pillocks of the establishment decide they will spend the late Summer at a Scottish property belonging to a younger acquaintance. Collectively adopting the pseudonym of John Macnab, they write to the owners of three neighbouring estatyes, informing two of them that a stag will be taken on a set date, and telling the remaining one that a salmon will be taken. By giving advance notice of the date, ‘Macnab’ is giving the owners’ fair warning, thus turning the whole criminal enterprise a sporting air.

What follows is a (of course) superbly written and flowing tale that never ceases to engage. And of course this being a Buchan adventure tale, the success of the enterprise is always in doubt, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ nature of the task forming the core of the narrative.

Along the way there are a couple of comments about jews and a few asides onTory politics, but these are altogether less dodgy than the like in the Hannay books. There’s also the whole concept of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, things that some find distasteful but which here, of course, are discussed as if they’re as natural as making a killing in the City without one’s heart being in it, conducting court cases with one’s eyes closed, or feeling bored by one’s Cabinet level job. But then this is world Buchan knew and inhabited. Take it or leave it, we can’t change it.

All in all, then this is a classic Buchan. Read it with a sense of irony from our 21st century perspective, or just take it for what it is. Either way, if you try it you’ll more than likely enjoy it.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy World Book Day. Except in the UK…

World Book Day in the UK is arguably just a marketing opportunity and a fancy dress contest. Let’s make it a REAL celebration of the printed word instead.

In the vast majority of countries, today is World Book Day, a shared celebration of the printed word spanning cultures, countries and continents.  As usual though, old stick-in-the-mud UK goes it alone and contrives to do things differently. Consequently, our ‘World’ Book Day currently takes place at the end of March. Except it’s not a wholly innocent celebration of the printed word. And it’s falling short on several fronts. What follows is my own personal take on UK WBD as a parent and as a reader, and my own suggestions for what could really breathe life into the day on our islands.

So it’s intended to promote books (and I assume the general cause of literacy) in the UK. It’s also spawned its own tradition of giving schoolchildren a chance to dress up as their favourite book character. So far, so seemingly wholesome and innocent. But as a someone who likes to read, who values books and book culture, and as a parent myself (veteran of six World Book Days and counting…) I have my doubts that it genuinely fulfils the nobler of the intentions that UNESCO had in mind when WBD was established in the 90’s. Lest anyone accuse me of being a grumpy old git, let me point out that only a total cretin would NOT want the cause of literacy or the joy of reading to be promoted. And who am I to say kids shouldn’t get a chance to spend a day out of their dowdy school uniforms? So be clear: stick in the mud I am not. But cynic I most certainly am. That said I’m a cynic who doesn’t want to be so, because I can see how things could be so much better and brighter about World Book Day in the UK, if only it were a genuine celebration of book culture with nary a thing to be cynical about.

A bit of background…

 The official UNESCO designation is of World Book and Copyright Day, which is actually celebrated worldwide on April 23rd. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, describes the day thus on UNESCO’s website (certain items put in bold by me, by the way):

On World Book and Copyright Day, UNESCO invites all women and men to rally around books and all those who write and produce books. This is a day to celebrate books as the embodiment of human creativity and the desire to share ideas and knowledge, to inspire understanding and tolerance […] Books are not immune from a world of change, embodied in the advent of digital formats and the transition to open licensing for knowledge-sharing. This means more uncertainty but also new opportunity — including for innovative business models in the world of publishing. Change is raising sharp questions about the definition of the book and the meaning of authorship in the digital era. UNESCO is leading from the front in the new debates about the dematerialization of books and the rights of authors. By championing copyright and open access, UNESCO stands up for creativity, diversity and equal access to knowledge. We work across the board – from the Creative Cities of Literature network to promoting literacy and mobile learning and advancing Open Access to scientific knowledge and educational resources. For instance, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, UNESCO is striving to harness mobile technology to support literacy. 

So let’s try and cut through the flannel here and look at things another way: There’s the usual high-minded and ambitious sentiment about wanting to promote literacy; to celebrate books, authors and the transmission of knowledge; and  to preserve and sustain book culture because it’s a source of collective and personal empowerment. I’m not going to argue with that. But as the parts I’ve put in bold clearly imply, the link between World Book Day and the publishing industry has always been there (remember that ‘Copyright’ bit), and we’d be fools not to bear that in mind amid all the noble and lofty sentiment. By the way, Irina, I’d keep a close eye on the “dematerialisation of books” problem. I seems like all those British schoolkids dressed as Harry Potter have been waving their wands a bit too hard…

Meanwhile back in the UK…

As I see it, the problems with World Book Day in its British form are various, and it’s the result of misplaced priorities.  In the UK World Book Day is organised by a charity,but i would be very surprised if that didn’t take a large part of its direction from the publishing industry. As the World [i.e. UK] Book Day wesbsite says: World Book Day Ltd is a registered charity whose financing of World Book Day comes mainly from contributing publishers, the generous sponsorship of National Book Tokens Ltd, some literacy partnerships and other supporters, as well as the participating booksellers who fund the entire cost of Book Token redemption. While some of WBD’s partners are charitable organisations engaged in promoting the general cause of literacy both at home and abroad, let’s get down to bass tacks: On balance of probability, it’d be fair to argue that  publishers and the book trade stump up a lot of the upfront cost for WBD in the hope of a return in the form of boosted sales. How does this fit in with the nobler of UNESCO’s core aims, viz. inviting people to reflect on the very notion of books, and to send them away with a renewed sense of the power of books to educate, inspire, inform, entertain, instruct, enrich, sustain, promote, alter, reinvent, provoke, protect, deceive, destroy…?

Well I’m not sure it gets us very fair. In my experience in the UK, World Book Day is as much about shifting product as it is about feeding minds and animating the collective human spirit. Let’s get specific.   1) In the UK we don’t ‘celebrate’ World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.   No minor point this, so bear with me. World Book Day in the UK should actually be called UK Book Day, because it currently falls at the beginning of March.  Almost everywhere else in the world it’s on April 23rd. The reason? Well Wikipedia (a useful source even when it’s wrong) currently states that  “in the UK, World Book Day is held annually on the first Thursday in March, as 23 April clashes with Easter school holidays; 23 April is also the National Saint’s Day of England, St George’s Day.” There’s also this justification which is taken from the ‘World Book Day’ website: In the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters. We take into consideration religious holidays, school terms and potential conflict with other charitable activities. In other countries World Book Day takes place at a different time of year – usually in April. As most people would be able to tell you, this point about April 23d clashing with the Easter holidays is a red herring. Easter is rarely so late in the year. The worst that would happen is that this would ‘clash’ with the beginning of a school term. I can’t remember the last time the Easter Holidays actually ate so far into the end of April. It does happen, but it’s no big deal. As for April 23rd also being St George’s Day, well so what? Some people ‘celebrate’ it but it’s not exactly a major date in most people’s calendar in the UK, despite noisy protestations of a vocal minority or recent half-baked attempts to raise its profile in recent years. Some english schools make an attempt to acknowledge it in some way, but when they tried this at my kids’ school they said come dressed in a way that reflects the St George story or in something that reflects England. One kid came in a dragon ‘onesie’ while a few appeared in England football shirts. What a staggeringly successful affirmation of the patriotic spirit. Of course April 23rd is actually one of the most auspicious days in the UK literary calendar, being the anniversary of the Bard Shakespeare’s  birth and death. Even UNESCO refer to that. What’s the UK publishing industry’s problem? Make no mistake: To cite clashes with the Easter holidays, St George’s day or any other reasons is just spurious. The real reason that we have World Book Day in the UK during the dog-end of Winter rather than in the first flush of Spring, as I recall Private Eye among others have pointed out in the past, is that the main funder and driver of World Book Day in the UK is the British book trade. It suits their commercial purposes to have an influx of book-token-touting kids going into bookshops when the new titles of the quarter are being released. What was that they say again? Oh yes, “in the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters”. [Items in bold are mine].  Since the children’s book market is so lucrative in the UK, World Book day effectively spearheads the first major sales push of the year after Christmas. Cynical, moi? Not half as cynical as the average publisher, baby. In fact I’m a softy idealist at heart. I say celebrate World Book Day in the UK actually ON World Book Day, in perfect harmony with our brothers and sisters everywhere else in the world, and also to honour the Bard for good measure. It’s wouldn’t even be half so big an inconvenience as some would have you think.

2) This dressing up malarky.  I refer not to the elaborateness of some costumes. I refer not the cost. It’s the prerogative of each parent as to how much time or cash they part with in order to make their child or children dress up. I refer instead to what the children actually dress up as. Let’s look at the name of the day again. World Book Day. For the hard of thinking or those who don’t own any books, let write that again with a hint. World BOOK Day. Yes, I’m addressing you, parent of the child in my daughter’s class who let their son go dressed in a full Real Madrid kit with ‘Ronaldo’ written on the back. Are you stupid? I don’t care if Ronaldo’s appeared in Panini sticker books. I don’t care if he’s had books written about him. The bloke might even have an autobiography, not that I give a damn. Ronaldo is a footballer. It was World Book Day. Where is the logical connection?  You parents are guilty of extracting several large vats full of urine. For the parents of the four children dressed as Lego Ninjago characters there are no words. Other than to say that I suspect the last new book to enter your home was probably the Yellow Pages. I’m also thinking of you, the parents of children who go dressed as Darth Vader or a Stormtrooper. As my son rightly says, if you’re going to dress as a character out of a film, at least have the common sense to choose someone who has appeared in the book first, and then appeared  in the film of the book. I’ve even got those of you in my sights whose kids go as Spiderman or Batman. “But they’re characters out of comics!” Yes they are. And granted some of those comics can be very good. But face it, you too are extracting the urine. Why? Well it’s because it’s more convenient to let your child go dressed in a play outfit they already have, one with only a tenuous link to a celebration of BOOKS (not comics, and PLEASE DON’T SAY THAT COMICS ARE A KIND OF BOOK BECAUSE THAT’S NEVER BEEN THE TRADITION IN THE UK). It indicates to me that Batman or Spiderman is probably the most intellectually advanced reading material to be found in your home. And there, I;ve said it now. Yes, parents like you are also very thick indeed. I think it’s essentially up to UK schools to show some backbone on this, by actually talking to children about what they might like to go dressed as, and trying their utmost to get children’s head around the fact that it really has to be a character who can be found (or was first found) in a genuine BOOK. “Oh but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!” Oh grow up! Would you let a child consistently give the wrong answers to a series of sums and not correct them for fear of hurting his feelings? Of course not. And yet you still let children come dressed as Ronaldo or Lego Man to world book day. You are teachers. You are there to guide and educate. You are there to support the qualities of curiosity, excellence and truth exemplified in the very best books. The least you can do is help a child tell the difference beforehand between an attacking forward for Real Madrid and a character in a book. Better still, some parents might say, don’t encourage the kids to dress up at all, or vigorously send the message that there’s no shame in not dressing up.  After all, there are many (parents and children alike) for whom this dressing up lark is nothing but an annual pain in the backside, a waste both of time and money.

3) Those book tokens.  Hmmm. They haven’t got it right have they? So each child comes home with a token giving them either a free book or a quid (that’s ONE SINGLE, SOLITARY, LONELY, MEASLEY LITTLE QUID) off a book priced £2:99 or more. Now my kids are avid readers with catholic tastes, but they never, and I mean NEVER, go for any of the free books on offer. What I have to put up with instead (and I have genuinely heard this from other children as well) are complaints from my children that the free books don’t look very good, but that they still want to use their token on something else in the shop. Which is interesting, because my children don’t normally pester me to buy them books just like that. Unless, of course, the idea has been planted in their heads… That’s not to say that the free books are all without merit, but on the whole they always seem rather middling to poor fare to my kids. They’re slimmed down volumes, often consisting of little more than excerpted and previously published material. I see them hanging around bookshops near me for months afterwards. And a quid off a news book is neither here nor there really when (and sod it, let’s be completely cynical about this) you can save far more by ordering a book off certain internet sites. I wonder if you’ve experienced the same thing? When it comes down to it, just how many of those book tokens go unredeemed? Of course, we’ve already established that the main drivers behind UK World Book Day are the publishers and book floggers themselves, so little wonder that the day is capped off with the ceremonial handing over to each child of the blessed Token. It strikes me that the kids’ time (and money if it comes to that) would be better served by a trip to the local library or a second hand bring and buy book fair in each school: bring your old books and come away with some new ones.

4) Are schools really joining in the party?  In too many schools, World Book Day is just another day, albeit with the kids dolled up in fancy dress. Not enough schools are really joining the party by putting on an extensive series of book and literacy themed events. Some do (and some schools make sure their annual ‘Book Week’ coincides with Book Week and that there is a consistent set of activities over several days to promote all aspects of reading and- in the most outstanding examples- the children’s own creative writing. But I repeat: in far too many British schools, it’s Just Another Day with the exception of some funny  costumes.

5) UK WBD is aimed overwhelmingly at CHILDREN. The children’s market incidentally remains one of the most lucrative sectors of the UK publishing market in these uncertain and changing times. There are a few initiatives in the UK aimed at older readers (some taking place on or around the official WORLD Book Day on April 23rd. But still if you piece together what seems to be happening on UK WBD in March, it’s a case of shifting product.

So should we do anything about it? 

Here are some random suggestions for ways to put books and book culture at the very heart of UK Book Day, and to give it a truly international feel…

1) Celebrate World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.

Enough British exceptionalism.

2) Find an alternative to the Book Tokens. 

Make it worthwhile to use them. Let me be viciously blunt about this: £1 off the price of a new book is a lousy idea of a discount. Maybe we hold just ditch them. And remember that as a parent, if you don’t like the books on offer, make a point of taking your kids to the library instead. Or perhaps visit a second hand bookshop or a charity shop.

3) Remember everyone that it’s not World New Books Day, it’s World Book Day. 

That’s books in general, which doesn’t just mean living authors with product to shift. Let’s celebrate everybody.

4) Do we really have to have all that dressing up? 

I write as someone who gets away with it pretty lightly: There have been tears and arguments in our house over costumes, but not for a while now. The past couple of years I have just let my kids get on with it themselves and they’ve done very well.

A lot of people would be glad to see the back of this ‘tradition’, however.

The fact remains that there are a great many parents feel under great pressure to help their children go to town on the costumes. A lot of the time this leads to arguments and frustration, and 3am dashes to the all-night supermarket to get that all-important item to finish off a costume for the next morning.

Let’s not forget as well, that there are always children who for whatever reason don’t go dressed up as a character. Spare a thought for them (there, I told you I wasn’t such a cynic after all).

Once, just once, it’d be lovely to hear of a school who encouraged their pupils not to worry so much about dressing up and who found a simpler way of celebrating UK Book Day.

Which brings me to point five…

5) Why not encourage the children to take their favourite book into school instead? 

This might entail just as much thought as choosing which character to dress up as, but ultimately it’d be far less hassle, involve far less effort, fewer tears and less expense.

It’d also symbolise UNESCO’s values far more. Children take these things seriously. Let’s get them to share there enthusiasm for a book in a truly meaningful way, rather than encouraging them to flaunt it (i.e. by dressing up) in a more shallow manner.

The following points are aimed mainly at Schools…

6) See points 4 and 5 above. Don’t be afraid to buck a trend.

7) April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. Some sensible teachers and schools know this band do something curriculum based to exploit it for learning opportunities. Most schools don’t, and they are looking a gift horse in the mouth.

8) Have two world book days. Play the game if they insist on still playing it, i.e. dole out the tokens in March so no-one feels left out, and so you don’t get any snide and negative headlines in the local or national press.  But make it clear to the children in your charge that the real fun will be in April. Give them a sense of being part of a worldwide celebration of the book.

9) Use World Book Day to introduce the literatures of other cultures into your lessons. And by other cultures, I don’t just mean the Commonwealth stuff so beloved of GCSE English literature courses. Your kids will learn/ are learning enough about that. Instead, show some intellectual curiosity and ambition yourselves. Look to our European neighbours (April 23rd also happens to be Cervantes’s birthday too of course). There’s a massive wider European cultural tradition that our kids are unaware of.

And lastly one for the BBC and Channel 4…

10) More coverage of books is needed. I’m not aiming this point at commercial UK broadcasters. They are largely a hopeless case. Instead as the national broadcaster and a public service one to boot, I expect far more from the BB and C4.  Aside from the odd factual programme on Radio 4 (most of which reach only to the converted anyway…) and book adaptations on radio, the BBC’s coverage of books in general and literature has largely lost its way.

Time for a rethink. I personally think that a UK version of the notable French series Apostrophes could work extremely well.

And finally…

One-off celebration days are great, but each time you put your mind to opening a book with the intention of enjoying it or getting something from it, you are in your own way celebrating our collective book culture and learning. Make everyday a World Book Day.

Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

“Burn for You”: A review of “Story to Story: The Official Autobiography of INXS”

This isn’t a new book by any means, having first appeared in 2005. Music i listened to when I was younger wasn’t really a priority back then, but I must be mellowing, so when I saw this in a charity shop I thought I’d give it a read. It’s a good (auto)biography, long on stories, with quite a lot of laughs to bookend with the tears that come at the end, and fortunately it pulls no punches in order to show how the INXS juggernaut came to a terrible halt in November 1997.

INXS was the first band I was massively into, and also happened to be my first ever gig. In fact, one person who really, really should have known better once decided to play a round of ‘what was your first ever gig?’ in the pub once. When I mentioned that mine was INXS on the X tour in 1990 (or was it 91?) he rounded on me, generally putting me down for the fact that INXS did not make for a respectable first gig.

Cue a foul mouthed tirade from me telling him exactly why he was wrong, taking in such important points as INXS being one of the few rock bands who could actually swing, the superlative live show, and the fact that (before all of the post-1995 Paula Yates tabloid free-for-all that culminated in his untimely death) Michael Hutchence WAS cool, was THE man and had all the grace, intelligence and style to be classed as one of the greatest rock frontmen.

This book revels in stories of Hutchence’s showmanship and decadence, but it’s obvious that this was a man who a torn individual. On the one hand he was the rock god personified. On the other he was a caring person, a deep thinker, a worrier, and an all-round sensitive soul.

Particularly towards the end of his life, Hutchence found himself pigeon holed as a louche rock lothario, which for a time- wrongly but almost inevitably- saw him tabloid press target number one in Britain, especially once his ill-fated affair with Paula Yates began. With hindsight he should have moved back to Hong Kong, or to LA, or back to Australia, or just laid low in his South of France villa. But instead he stayed in London, got embroiled, bogged down and generally stuck in every kind of rut imaginable.

I’ve always thought that Hutchence’s own sad personal decline mirrored that of the band. This relatively short book is very good at tracing their career trajectory, and is revelatory in its descriptions of its beginnings as (almost literally and certainly to all intents and purposes) a band of brothers in late 70’s Sydney. After a brief hiatus in Perth while their underage drummer Jon Farriss tried (and failed) to finish High School, the band went back to Sydney. There’s a lot in this book made about the Australian live music scene that was centred on the pubs in those days (nothing like your typical english pub as it happens, but coming over rather as a cross between a german bier keller and a large live music venue).

Then enter manager Chris Murphy, a manager who clearly thought that his new charges could go all the way. He took them out of the pubs and went global, through a series of cut throat record deals and a touring schedule that would make many a lesser band split.

It is to the band’s immense credit that instead of being burned out by such a heavy workload in the 80’s, they actually thrived on it, so much so that they became one of the great live rock acts to date. It helped that their recorded output steadily grew in quality, and by the time they began working with producer Chris Thomas on 1985’s Listen Like Thieves they were poised for greatness. As the book makes clear, this was a band who were left of the mainstream so as to be considered cool, yet mainstream enough so as to have potential mass appeal.

That potential was fulfilled and greatness came, of course, with the mighty Kick from 1987.  For a while they wore the mantle of “The Biggest Band in the World”. After touring their backsides off for a couple of years and being all over MTV, INXS took a well-earned break.

Again, with benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see to that Kick and the subsequent status it brought them was the pinnacle of their career. It rounded off an incredible decade of great music and sheer hard work.  It was the end of the beginning, but instead of (ahem) kicking on from that, it was also the beginning of the end.

I remember as a fan liking bits of the follow up disc X, but never loving it like I loved (and still love) Kick. As Murphy is quoted as saying in the book, X was not enough of a departure from Kick. He suspected the band had grown somewhat safe and complacent and the alarm bells were ringing in his head for the first time. Hutchence, it was clear even at the time, had taken his eye somewhat off the ball. Still a compelling performer, he was by the early 90’s a tabloid staple, having first rather surprisingly taken up with Kylie Minougue, and then completely understandably having ditched her for Helena Christensen. This was a bloke who had earned his slice of the high life but was perhaps letting that take the place of the music that had got him there in the first place.

Of course grunge in the US and a general return to a more earthy and traditional rock approach in the UK put paid to a lot of the bands who’d made it in the 80’s. INXS could have adapted but a couple of odd career choices followed. Firstly they didn’t tour the album Welcome to Wherever You Are. This isn’t a bad record at all but by this stage I was losing interest. So did a lot of fans in the US according to the book, since the record company wouldn’t promote it like they had previous releases, and the band weren’t going to tour, so that put paid to its chances over there. I remember hearing the lead single Heaven Sent and thinking it was a good rocker, but stuff like Baby Don’t Cry (although I don’t mind it now) struck my teenaged self as being simplistic and overblown. Had they come up with something that wasn’t merely ‘Need You Tonight Part II’, but harnessed the originality and arresting qualities of their best music I’d have stayed loyal. But they didn’t, and so I didn’t.

Things then got odd given all that had gone before and it seems like the band entered a period of uncertainty that they couldn’t quite get out of, and which in the end amounted to a slow decline. For a band who had sold out Wembley stadium barely two years earlier, 1993’s “Get Out of the House” tour, a ‘back to the clubs’  jaunt around smaller venues, sent out odd signals. The band said they wanted to reconnect with their fans in the kind of venues they’d started out in. But of course by deliberately avoiding the kind of arenas they had grown into (and to be fair could make feel like a small, intimate club through sheer force of performance and personality) it partially sent out the signal that the band wasn’t as big as it once was. And they admit as much in the book, Andrew Farriss seeming to imply that it was something of a mistake.

The album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts followed soon after to mixed reviews that erred on the negative. The book is very revealing about the recording of this disc on the island of Capri. While it sounds idyllic in theory, the band were there out of season and the journey to the island recording studio was anything but easy. To make matters worse, the stormy weather outside was mirrored inside the studio by the erratic and often violent behaviour of the band’s erstwhile easy-going and charming front man.

Beginning with the serious head injury suffered in Copenhagen after he was assaulted by a taxi driver (leading among other things to a bruised brain and an almost total loss of the sense of taste and smell) the book goes into the necessary but not voyeuristic detail about the changes in Michael Hutchence in the years leading up to his death. To add to his serious head injury, there was to come the Geldof-Yates-Hutchence love triangle, complicated by a well-publicised custody battle over the Geldof-Yates children.

As the book also makes clear, it wasn’t just Hutchence who was having personal problems by the mid-nineties, and it seems that a combination of personal problems, managerial difficulties and so-so but not stellar musical product were dogging them up to and including November 1997.

Interestingly, the book goes into great detail about the critical backlash against the band in their native Australia. That fateful month saw them back in Sydney rehearsing for a tour of smaller venues in Oz. It was a sort of ‘back to basics’ (i.e. not the biggest venues) tour all over again. This time however, they hadn’t chosen to play those venues: they were more in keeping with the band’s profile. Chris Murphy is clear in the book that the burden of having to play smaller venues (some of which hadn’t sold out) could have exacerbated whatever demons were plaguing Hutchence at the time. Certainly it’s clear that whatever factors drove him to take his own life, an enforced absence from Yates and his daughter Tiger was probably one of them.

Murphy remains adamant that INXS shouldn’t have touched the Australian circuit with a bargepole, not until the year 2000 at least, by which time al animosity would have subsided and they could have come back with a bang. It makes great sense as a strategy, but of course we’ll never know.

By 1997 I no longer listened to INXS’s music. But the news of Hutchence’s sudden death in November of that year still came as a shock to me as it did to so many. Without wishing to overdramatise how I felt at the time, it was like hearing of the death of a friend I hadn’t seen for some years.

A few years ago I saw INXS playing at a smallish venue near me on the tour they did with Canadian JD Fortune, one of the numerous replacements for Hutchence they’ve used over the years. They were great. They still rocked. They swung like the old days. Jon Farris and Gary Garry Beers proved that they are one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock n’roll. Tim Farriss kept it funky. Kirk Pengilly added musical flourishes on lead guitar and sax. And good old Andrew Farriss kept it tight at the back. I sang along to every bloody word that night, words I hadn’t thought of or brought to mind since I was a kid, and I lost my voice from screaming just as I did that first time I saw them. It was a great gig, and Fortune did his very, very best which by most standards was very good indeed. But then again the standard he was up against was the one set by Michael Hutchence. My God, it would have been greater if only Michael were there.

It’s only recently that I’ve taken an interest in their music again.  The other day I even got round to listening to his posthumously released solo album for the first time. I found most of it very difficult to listen to. Not because of the music, which I like, but because of the lyrics.  For all his faults, he was a great performer and on balance the book makes a convincing case for saying that he was a decent man who got terribly, terribly trapped. What I think he needed was a damned good rest. The great sadness is that that rest took the wrong form.

It seems to be the accepted trajectory for rock bands these days, but for all the pretence about making new albums and trying to remain a developing creative force, there comes a point where the general public lose interest and only want to hear the Greatest Hits. It happened with the Stones years ago. It’s already happened with U2. Oasis have a lucrative career as their own tribute act waiting for them, if only they can bury the hatchet and get it together.

INXS could have had this kind of career. It’s moot whether they could have really reinvented themselves after the Elgantly Wasted album, but even if they hadn’t, if they’d have followed Murphy’s advice and laid low for a few more years, they could have been conquering heroes once their style had come back into vogue (their recent chart successes in Australia that coincided with a major TV mini drama show there’s some merit in this argument).  The irony is that Michael showed plenty of signs that he could have had an interesting career and developed in his own right, however.

So in a parallel universe somewhere, Michael Hutchence has just completed his twelfth feature film and his band INXS are gearing up for one of their periodic reunion tours. Rumour has it that he is penning songs for a third solo album, and there is even talk of the band filling the ‘legends’ slot on the Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, a performance which will rekindle the INXS spark in the UK once again just like it did in Oz last year.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things are as they are. But at least we’ve got some great music. And there are also many of us with such great memories of the band and our friend Michael.

It’s most fitting at this point to quote Kirk Pengilly, who provides the final words in the book: “All that he [Michael] really wanted in the end was to know that we mattered. He wanted to know that we’d served a purpose. He wanted to know that we’d given people memories.”

In this, they succeeded wonderfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter de la Mare: A fine English all-rounder.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.

Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.

Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.

Here it is:

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.

Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.

I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.

So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.

The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.

A review of TS Eliot A Short Biography by John Worthen.

This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite  a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.

Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.

Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.

After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say-  The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.

To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Horn (1930-2014)

A brief diversion away from books this time, just to note the passing of master musician Paul Horn. In tho past week The Guardian published  an informative obituary.

Paul Horn began his career as a jazz musician, but it was his desire to record beneath the dome of the Taj Mahal while in India in 1968, and the subsequent album Inside, that saw him forge a new path and come to be considered (for what the phrase is worth) as the ‘godfather of New Age music’.

I’m no expert on New Ageism and neither can I really describe what New Age music is. I listened to Inside first because I read an interview with Jimmy Page in which he cited it as one of his favourite records and one that had influenced him.

Lucky I read that, because on Page’s recommendation I listened to Inside and fell in love with the music, its sound and the whole idea of the record.  It’s the sound of someone in love with sound, and who is experimenting with sound for the sake of it because it not only sounds good to him but because it’s one of the most natural things for human beings to do. It’s as full of life as the sound of children making noises underneath the arch of a bridge or inside a tunnel. They do it because they love it and it sounds funny, exciting, different, and fascinating.

Here’s a track from Inside that hopefully illustrates what I’m trying to say.

 

 

Review: The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye (Penguin single volume) by Raymond Chandler.

For one reason or another, on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago I picked up my old dog-eared Penguin triple volume of Chandler. I think I’ve read each novel at least once (some twice) but the last time must have been some years ago, since I could not for the life of me remember much about the plots in any of them. Just as well then, because it felt like I was reading them again for the first time. By the following Thursday I’d read all three books.

The Big Sleep is a great crime novel and a great book full stop. It is quite complicated, so I won’t try to summarise all the plot here, but what I do think is that if it isn’t Chandler’s best book, then in many respects it’s his calling card as a writer. While the plot can be tricky to discuss and get your head around, what comes across crystal clear is the evocation of the seedier side of pre-war Los Angeles, the general atmosphere of the place, and of course Phillip Marlowe himself.

Probably my favourite novel out of the three collected together here is Chandler’s second to be published, Farewell My Lovely. Take the seedy LA of The Big Sleep, add a cast of misfits, drugs, alcohol, a murder hunt, a missing person case and what have you got? A book that satisfies on the plot level, and which also sees gallant old Marlowe working in tandem with the law to being to solve a case. Brilliant stuff.  

Is The Long Goodbye Chandler’s best book? He seemed to think so and is on record in a letter to a friend as saying so.

Either way, I think that this book, the penultimate Marlowe novel published in Chandler’s lifetime,  shows off the immortal character of Phillip Marlowe at his wise-cracking, sharp, cynical but essentially gallant best.

Here’s the plot: One night Marlowe quite by chance makes the acquaintance of Terry Lennox, the politest drunk he’s ever met. One thing leads to another and the two strike up a friendship which mostly revolves around drinking cocktails in the early evening.

Then things are turned completely on their head when Lennox arrives very early one morning at Marlowe’s Laurel Canyon home. Lennox needs to get out of Los Angeles and fast. Marlowe knows Lennox is in trouble (part of him knew from the off that Lennox WAS trouble) but in that typically hard-but-fair Marlowe way, he agrees to help his new friend by driving him to the airport, where he can catch a plane for Mexico. The only proviso is that Marlowe doesn’t want to know what Lennox has done.

This is only the beginning of a plot that becomes more and more complex once Marlowe is engaged by the wife and publishers of an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, to make sure that the scribe stays off the bottle and on track to finish his latest blockbuster novel.

I’ve described Marlowe as gallant a couple of times now, but that is a key adjective when trying to fathom this cynical, wise-cracking, tough but essentially decent man. Why he’d want to put himself through hell for £25 dollars a day plus expense (and sometimes for free) is beyond me. ”

“Well if I don’t do it, no-one else will, pal,” would probably be his reply.

I am now well into the companion volume to this, which collects three of the other most highly regarded Marlowe books in one. I will blog about this when I’ve read it.

For the moment though, if you have never read any Chandler then I can heartily recommend him. Though he remains not just a standard writer of crime novels but also a touchstone one, his books are not always kept in stock in new book shops in the UK at least.  Good independent retailers can always get them, however, and there’s always loads of them available second hand. Ebooks also seem to be readily available too.