Cities of Salt Abdul Rahman Manif 1984
Sinews of War and Trade, Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula
Laleh Khalili, 2020
Laleh Khalili is an academic and this is an academic book, so there are lots of footnotes and, wishing to avoid plagiarism, references to people who first had this or that thought, which maybe we as the general reader, don’t really mind about. Khalili has done a great amount of research, including travelling on the huge vessels herself and has brought to our attention this driving power of the world economy, hidden in plain sight. Her subject is the two gulfs on the west and east of Saudi Arabia, the first on the east edge of Africa leading to the Suez canal, the second on the edge of Iran (the book really really needs a better map/s). Both have many ports, particularly the east side, huge docking areas created by machinery at vast expense and worked by landless, almost stateless immigrants.
The port areas are in a constant state of flux, everything changes, politics, affiliations, demands, the geography. Khalili tells us that 90% of the world’s goods travel by ship, 30% of this is crude oil and the other bulk commodities, coal, grain, iron ore, bauxite and phosphate rock, make up much of the rest. Because China takes the largest portion of these bulk items, much of the gulf traffic is on its way there so geography is a big factor in why these ports are here, but actually other things are more important. Consortiums of large businesses (oil especially) and ruling kings with the connivance of the US, Britain or other countries create Free Ports, areas of land under no or vague jurisdiction where no customs or other charges are incurred. Legal cases over the years generally rule in the favour of the businesses, not the country in which they are situated and the countries must comply due to the large sums of money involved.
It leaves workers poorly protected but much needed. It is a strange, artificial world, where people live only to work within hierarchies based on country of origin, with no thought to nature, the arts or history.
“… fantastic monsters of terrorism, violence, and insecurity are conjured as threats to port or terminal security, and equally fantastical solutions are offered which subject ports and ships to surveillance, security bureaucracies and useless red tape. The conjurers of these nightmares of terror are often security ‘experts’ who along with their cargo of fear, sell their security expertise”
A situation similar to the current Corona hysteria.
Wildflower; The Story of Joan Root
Mark Seal, 2006
I was attracted to this book by the charming cover photograph of Joan, tall and pretty in a cotton dress standing by a tiny baby elephant. She was shy but had charisma, she attracted. I read the book in a day. Joan married Allan Root when they were both 21, both born and bred in Africa, and together they started wild life filming, recording the amazing African fauna, in the knowledge that it would be gone in their life times. They made many films from thousands of migrating antelope, to underwater hippopotami to a year in a termite mound. It was a life of adventure and action but not a happy life. That was the intriguing thing. Joan played second fiddle to Alan who was the showman, when he left her for other women, and one clingy one in particular (the exact opposite of capable Joan), she never recovered emotionally. In retrospect she should have moved to a town and begun life anew, what she did is start a wildlife sanctuary, and campaign to save the wildlife, raising awareness and setting up poacher patrols. She was murdered aged 69, and I learnt that many, if not most of the famous African wildlife campaigners met similar fates.
The Great Betrayal, (Britain) The True Story of Brexit
Rod Liddle; 2019
I enjoyed reading this book, it was funny, and fun to read. I didn’t really learn anything new, I sort of knew what Liddle was telling me, even though I have avoided all media for the last five years as much as is humanly possible, even I knew that not a single person working in the BBC voted to leave the EU, that most Tories were pro staying, all Lib Dems were pro staying, a few Labour thought they should leave etc etc. Everything upside down and round about. The book was written last year and Liddle assumes as he ends it we will not leave, because those in power don’t want to. Since then there has been the December 2020 election swing to Conservative, probably based on Boris Johnson saying he would actually leave, but I don’t know what Leave means actually. Does anyone? Right now with the Corona hysteria about us and the world as we know it – education, theatre, music, church, work, transport – stopped (for why I don’t know), it doesn’t seem that important.
Lenin in Zurich Alexandre Solzhenitskyn 1975
Reviewer: Rebecca; August 2020
Solzhenitskyn has written a story based on his extensive research and primary documents of Lenin's life in Zurich, bringing to life this, how can I describe him, 'evil man' is the best way. Lenin was a man possessed of an idea and a huge belief in himself. Solzhenitskyn's book about a person in history is of great relevance to today, indeed to all time. Lenin was a writer and researcher of revolution and spent most of his time in the library in Zurich the two years he lived there. He fundamentally believed (and was proved right) that only a few people, a tiny percentage of the population, are needed to effect revolution. His great strength was in writing slogans and distributing slogans, phrases picked up by the population that through saying over and over become true (how like the corona madness of today). His other strength was he could dominate a room, even a room of strong personalities, he dominated them, people bowed to his views and opinions. Lenin had a clear vision of how revolution would happened, it would be based on extermination of the middle class, civil war, a blood bath and this is what happened. Leaflets and arms were together essential to make it happen. The story ends before this dreadful upheaval, with Lenin's race to Russia, aided by the German's during the 1st world war and accompanied by 40 other Russian emigres.
Stephen Johnson - How Shostakovich Changed my Mind 2020
Reviewer: Gary, August 2020
HSCMM is a typically modern book in its genre, and as the name implies, a large portion of it is devoted to what might be called 'confession'.
Normally, I despise the modern trend for self-disclosure more than anyone, and given that I had never previously heard of Mr Johnson (he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, that digital litmus test of celebrity), I thought it astonishingly presumptuous that he should expect me to care about his mental life.
Nevertheless, I was spurred on by having the book brought up in conversation with a friend, and finding it a week later in the Waterstones on Piccadilly. I'll admit, too, that a little reluctant voyeurism was involved.
This turned out not to have been an unhappy coincidence. Yes, there's an awful amount of self-pity (indulgence?) in the book, but there's also a lot of interesting and semi-original content that Shostakovich fans will love.
Even at the worst of times, Johnson comes off as someone we can sympathize with; his genuine and earnest love of DS's music is such that you very quickly forget that what you're reading is part autobiography.
There are all the old stories that will be familiar to seasoned DS fans; 'Muddle instead of music', his denunciation at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov, the jaw-dropping premiere of the Seventh Symphony (Leningrad). These are all constructed in such good and compelling prose as to compensate for their lack of novelty.
Then there are little snippets of information that will come as a surprise to most readers; did you know his entire bedroom was full of clocks? Apparently, given the very real threat of a small-hours knock from the KGB, he found them reassuring.
There are also easygoing and non-technical analyses of his symphonies and other works, in terms that even I could just about understand. There is a lengthy and fascinating discussion of his Eighth String Quartet, a work which I was largely unfamiliar with before.
On the autobiographical side, Johnson discusses his frightful childhood, which had all the joy and innocence squeezed out of it by a mother with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (if I remember rightly). Johnson, as many precocious boys do, retreated into a world of art and knowledge, and found particular consolation in the music of DS. He is aware, of course, that DS's music does not make a likely antidepressant (this is one of the first points he addresses in the preface). Nevertheless, he seems to have found catharsis in the musical release of his suffering. I think we can all relate to this, and he quotes erudite literary sources, from Aristotle to the late Oliver Sacks, to explain the basis of this catharsis.
HSCMM is not a long book (my copy amounts to 148 pages), and it is not likely to be considered a literary classic any time in the future, but it is an immensely stimulating book that is a must-read (a cliché but I mean it) for all Shostakovich fans.
Money Land, Oliver Bullough, 2019
Reviewer: Jacquie; July 2020
Oliver Bullough's book is about the corruption of the super rich, something we all vaguely suspect but curiously accept. Why do we accept it? We definitely should not for as this book makes clear, it damages freedom and democracy, it is insidious and very dangerous.
“'Graft' (illegal payments) distorts the whole economy. Important decisions are determined by ulterior motives regardless of consequences to the wider community”, as the sociologist Stanislav Andreski in his definition of corruption wrote. He observed that corruption is organised as a pyramid, with rulers extracting large sums at the top while state employees have to take bribes to feed themselves at the bottom (because a state impoverished by rich people not paying taxes cannot pay its workers). This is what is happening today across the world and Britain is at the centre of it through its banks. It is a situation that crept up slowly.
Bullough is an investigative journalist who speaks Russian, tells the story of how people with large sums to invest can put their money in places where it is hidden from tax authorities, wives, competitors and enemies, and how they can then spend it. He estimates 5% of all wealth/money is illegal, either evil (crime various) or naughty (no tax), both take the wealth of the country unto themselves, hide it, and then spend it. It explains why houses in certain parts of London or New York cost £millions they are a way of holding wealth. The same is true of jewels and art.
Probably rich people have always hidden their money and not paid taxes, but Burroughs traces his story of today to London and 1960, and to three individuals.
The Bretton Woods (in New Hampshire) international meeting in 1944, created an agreement and method of stopping the flows of money from one country to another in order to stop money chasing from one great scheme to the next and destabilising economies. It created a quasi gold standard, by pegging all currencies to the US dollar which in turn was backed by gold, $35 would buy one ounce of gold. Money could move overseas but only in a controlled way, i.e. in long term investments, not to fund short term gains. Ian Fleming's novel Goldfinger explained the effect this had, his villain attempted to smuggle gold from pawnshops in the west to India where it was worth considerably more than $35/oz for gold jewellery. Moving gold was illegal. Gold was a national asset and moving it undermined the currency on which everyone depended. In 1962 Siegmund Warburg a German banker living in London devised a way of using the stores of capital in Switzerland, traditional home of hidden money, to make more money, by creating bonds, loans with fixed interest and length of years till pay back. Business wanted the money to develop. Warburg hired Ian Fraser and Peter Spira to find ways to dodge the restrictions. By issuing bonds from Schiphol airport, paying tax on them in Luxembourgh, listing them on the London Stock Exchange, and pretending the borrower was an Italian state motorway company not a state holding company, taxes were avoided and technically, no law had been broken. This is how it was done then. Twisting and turning. It is how it is done now, via Shell companies and non functioning Directors and addresses.
The rich have become so rich they are untouchable. If laws are broken they bring in a team of lawyers tying up the prosecutors in maybe years of court room expenses – more than any organisation or Government can bear.
Bullough lists of stories featuring Russians, Ukrainians, African dictators, who come often to London to hide and spend their wealth. He describes countries which accept illegal money, off shore islands, gain by some of the wealth being spent there. Banks which accept it – London being a prime example, do so with elaborate schemes, involving shell companies, pretend directors and head quarter addresses. Reading the book I am sure much of what the writer knows cannot be said, because of the threat of lawsuits.
Should we care about this? Yes of course. Because it bypasses democracy, laws and common sense. Indeed it made me wonder if just ordinary bribery and corruption explains HS2 and other inexplicable things going on in the UK at the moment. What can be done about it. I didn’t get that far in the book, too depressed.
Plague of Corruption by Mikovits
Judy Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively
Reviewer: Rebecca: June 2020
This is a book about vaccination, how vaccines are created from animal tissue and injected into us, (or we breathe them in unknowingly from minute aeroscopic particles). How we actually don’t understand what they do, so theories such as, overloading the body, weakening it and bringing to it in this weakened state diseases such as cancer, autism, Chronic Fatigue System, Ebola – are plausible. But to even suggest such a thing brings the threat of a heavy law suite, ostracism from science and even murder. Considering the huge sums of money involved in medical science, it is actually not surprising. However, the enfoced silence is more insidious, more fundamental, it is the fear of speaking out against the crowd, that is the real silencer.
Mikovits' own story is a roller coaster, and we meet again in the book Andrew Wakefield (so denigrated in the UK for his theories on autism) and others who suffered even worse fates.
Mikovits and co worker Frank Ruscetti discovered a virus related to murine leukaemia viruses which they called XMRV (RV retro virus). They found XMRV in in children with autism, cancer and ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patients. The significance for them was to detect XMRV in blood supplies and clean the blood supplies to make it safe for transfusions, which they managed to do. But here they ran into problems of rival products and law suits.
What I found alarming is the active research carried out into animal ‘improvements’ in the form of vaccination, that many researchers are involved in and how these can plausibly cross over into humans, and also how medical science is so strongly tied to funding, to the huge grants funds, some private some public, some a mixture. Scientists in America are highly paid and there are also prizes.
Mikovits lists all the diseases that derive from animals: anthrax, bird flue, bovine tuberculosis, dengue fever, Ebola, encephalitis, hepatitis E, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, ringworm to name but a few.
At the end of the book she gives a few hints on how to stay healthy, the main thing is to be healthy, a strong immune system is your best friend, and you get it from being fit, eating healthy fats and not being overweight.
There are few other easy tips in the book which is hurriedly written, desperately needs an index and you may find the author (to our English ears), muddled and self important, but I read it in two days (though don’t test me on the science) and will say it is a very, very important book. It is frightening the vaccination programme and foolhardy, especially in countries and populations I know nothing about (Africa, South America, Asia) and I don’t thing the vaccinators do either.
Emma by Jane Austen
Jane Austen 1815
Reviewer: Gary; May 2020
I'm not sure what to think of Emma. It deals movingly with moral themes quite close to my heart without the ghastly Victorian sentimentality one expects of anything written in the nineteenth century (it was published twenty years before Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837); it is written in polished prose that never seems dull or prolix; its characters are memorable and charming.
And yet, as much as you might luxuriate in Austen's topnotch diction, you can't help wishing they'd all just shut up, tell each other how they feel and get it over with. The sexual nature of the passion the characters feel for their opposite numbers is quite undisguised to twenty-first century readers, who have the benefit of Freud, so that all the silly guile comes across as being palpably awkward.
The other issue is the sheer number of characters; as someone with a shockingly poor memory and a not stupendous intelligence, it's torture trying to keep track of who's married to whom, who's enamored with whom and who is whose great step goddaughter umpteen times removed. This difficulty can be remedied, but don't make the mistake I made of dragging the reading process out. The book is best read within a week or not at all - it's just too easy to forget everybody, otherwise.
Anyway, without giving too much away, the central theme in the novel, forgetting the uninteresting nonsense about class, is female virtue. It is about BECOMING a whole woman. This process is presented to us masterfully in the dichotomy of the two principal female characters, Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith. Harriet is conventional, demure, shy, submissive and brainless, existing only to be a kind of adjunct to whatever man might eventually take her up. Emma, on the other hand, is wilful, worldly and ambitious; she must exist on her own terms and will not accept domestic servitude. Austen, with a wisdom and life experience seldom seen today, rightly espouses the Aristotelian Golden Mean, and the novel finds its resolution in the harmonisation of the above two opposites. Emma gradually and movingly realises she is not after all omnipotent and ought to be more humble before the ever-humble Harriet; Harriet herself realises that humans are fallen creatures, that she isn't the only born sinner and ought to demand her due from the world. Via negativa and via positiva.
Of course, the modern world hates the golden mean, because it isn't INTERESTING; the modern world wants extremity, it wants shock, it wants subversion. But it shouldn't, because those things are quite adolescent and quite contrary to people's long term interests.
This is what redeems the novel; it is a good-humoured, very British celebration of virtues once familiar to all but now quite absent.
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig, 1930s published posthumously
Rebecca; 3 May 2020
Like many things I have read these last few weeks in the lock down this book seemed very relevant to the present situation. Set in early 1930s Austria citizens were hemmed in by rules, regulations, officialdom, Police, prying eyes, disapproval and and most of all - poverty. There was no way for them to express themselves, to use their skills and talents.
Bound to hated jobs that paid scarcely enough to survive, our two main characters are daily tormented, made worse by the lack of a fellow soul who understands their frustration at the madness and injustice of it all. Their families, people around them, seem to buy the system or at least to tolerate it. They are surrounded by the thought police, if they express different views the condemnation is palpable.
“...that idiot puppet the government, which doesn’t breathe and isn’t alive and doesn’t want to know anything, the stupidest thing people have ever invented, something that crushes people”
Ferdinand speaking, p232
“ … I don’t have a trace of moral scruple, when it comes to the state I feel completely free. Its committed such terrible crimes against us all, against our generation, that we have a right to anything … Commandeering, that's the word they used during the war, or expropriating – Versailles called it reclamation. Who taught us how to cheat if not the state – how else would we know that money saved up by three generations could become worthless in a mere two weeks, that families could be swindled out of pastures, houses, and fields that had been theirs for a hundred years … We have an excellent case against the state, by God, we'll win in every court. It can never pay off its terrible debt, never give back what it took from us. Once there might have been a reason to have some qualms, back when the state was a good custodian, thrifty, decent, proper. Now that its behaved like a hoodlum, we have the right to be hoodlums too”
Zweiss (who was forced to leave German in the 1930s) speaking through Ferdinand p235
Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse 1927
Reviewer: Rebecca; 16 April 2020
I read this book in March 2020 at the beginning of the Corvid 19 hysteria outbreak. I had read it many years before as a teenager, and remembered the basic premise, that society contains certain troubled outstanding individuals who are outside the lumpen pack of humanity, they suffer, are different and outcasts, but pull the safe, secure, majority along with them. I got it off the shelf again because I thought it would explain some of the madness of spring 2020, and for me it did. There is much more to it than the idea above. Hesse has a loathing for the middle classes, the bourgeoisie for its longing for safety, comfort and self interest and I believe in his own life was forced to leave Germany because of the unthinking views expressed by educated and working people alike. He could do nothing to bring people to their senses and so left. Steppenwolf is full of Hesse's anguish, his struggle to make sense of what was happening and he produces profound ideas to explain it. I found strong parallels, it was a relief to 'speak' to someone who had thought more deeply, but facing his stark truth made me unhappier. If there was somewhere to go where the population had resisted the madness and used sense, like Hesse, I would go there.
Black Boy 1945; The Outsider 1953 by Richard Wright
Reviewer: Rebecca; Feb 2020
I read these books one after another compiled in my single hardback Library of America volume. They were fantastic books, the sort that you are living in the whole time you are reading, that take over your life.
The first is a biography, but reads like a novel. What a life he had. The second is very much a novel, a fascinating story of an amoral man, Dostoevskyan in its compass. You will learn a lot about America in these books, but like all good books both are studies of 'the human condition' and of relevance to us all. Here is just one quote from the first book:
"Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another." (p37 Black Boy)
I followed the biography with its known characters to Wright's novel. The first four pages were slow but then, we are right into the story, an amazing one, such a good one I can read it with people talking around me, stuck on a train, in a cafe, I am lost in the story. The idea, someone who invents a new personality – think about it, starting anew as a mature person. What would that do to you, to your morals ...
Bog Bodies (1965) by P V Glob and Black Boy by Richard Wright
I wrote this poem while in the middle of reading Wright's book and Bog Bodies by Glob, they had a common theme, which I didn't expect.
Gentle people, soft yielding young
By righteous mob
Violently killed, throats cut, hung
Naked and trussed
Pushed face down into peaty pools
By people so just
Secured with wood stakes cruel
Point and splinter
Pinning down the rising vampires
The shortest darkest days when fires
Flicker and leap
To bring life back into seeds sewn
In damp soil asleep
Victims frightened forced and alone
To horrid ritual
Of pagan times sprite witch and fairy
Until the dark Yule
Was replaced by Christmas oh so merry!
Black Boy Mr Wright
Puzzled confused hurt and hungry
Huge the fight
To live, so degraded denied unfree
Impossible to be
Printer postman washer waiter
Eyes down keep clear
You don’t belong not now or later
Then the great idea
Communism! at last a home for you
But the cost! your own self true
No thought expression fun awhile
Of person for party just one smile
Outcast the price
Beaten cursed killed with disgust
By the group so righteous and just
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Reviewer; Gary Dec 2019
I approached Lord of the Flies, quite uncharacteristically, from a position of complete contextual ignorance; that is to say that despite its position as a much-loved modern classic, I read it with very little prior knowledge. I should also state that I had - and have - no knowledge whatever of Mr. Golding or his background.
I feel these two things are noteworthy for the reason that it seems to me difficult to judge from the work alone just what position it was that he took on the questions confronting civilisation; I think it would be just as plausible to read it as a Rousseau-esque condemnation of the life-sapping artificiality of civilisation, a dirge for Arcadian innocence, as to read it more straightforwardly as a warning of the fragility of liberal democracy and the values of civilisation itself.
The cast of characters, as many will know, is made up entirely of children. These children, marooned on an island in the Pacific following an airplane crash - I don't recall any plausible explanation for why only the children survived - quickly realise the necessity of collective organisation for survival, and it is the way in which this organisation evolves that produces the drama and deeper meaning of the story.
The children quickly establish a mock-democracy, centring around the triumvirate of Ralph, Simon and Jack, the novella's chief antagonist. The three boys together represent the three viable methods of organising a society: common law democracy (Ralph), liberal democracy (Simon) and autocracy in its myriad forms (Jack). Jack, of course, uses the time-honored tools of populism to fracture the sensitive structure of democracy Ralph erected. Here is where Golding's ambivalence about civilisation comes in; like Buddha or the Solomon of Ecclesiastes, he appears to view something vulnerable and impermanent as being the less valuable for it, which seems to me an adolescent fallacy. It is also noteworthy that by casting not just Jack and his band, but Ralph too as a petulant and disagreeable child, he appears, again, to be telling us that Ralph's system is not a whole lot better.
In view of the above, it will be apparent that whichever of the two plausible readings we accept of Lord of the Flies, it turns out to be something of a failure: if it is an attempt to vindicate liberal democracy, it fails for having represented that system as vain, petty and unstable. If it is an attempt to condemn civilisation on the grounds that it makes demands of its members, then it fails on moral grounds. Or perhaps it's the context that's missing. Either way, the book seems to me to deserve no more than a token reading.
Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood (1939)
The first story in this collection was shorter and less significant than I thought it would be, it was rather pointless. The other stories are actually far more interesting and taken altogether the book is profound. Set in 1930s Berlin, it is a first hand account written at the time, people live in boarding houses, it is all nasty, the houses are uncomfortable, crowded, dirty, the food is horrid and the people are nasty, nasty to each other, hating the other – Jews of course, that is given, but also just people they are jealous of or don’t like, for whatever reason, they take delight in their downfall and unhappiness. Children and parents hit each other and are rough.
I cant see why Berlin had such an attraction. It was awful, hell even. But fascinating, the nastiness was the real cause of the 2nd WW and Isherwood shows this with his stories. Hatred had permeated people's lives, become the norm, so beatings up, shootings even, snearing, crashes in people's fortunes, was just what happened. War was the extension of it, not inevitable of course, but logical if nothing stopped the nastiness. It was a failure of the Church, its moral teaching and inspiration had no impact, at least not on Isherwood's characters.
Grace Kelly by Christine Haughland (2012)
I read this book after watching 'To Catch a Thief' a flawed but watch-able film by Alfred Hitchcock. I agree that Grace Kelly was stunning in it, absolutely stunning, though no actress, and her clothes were horrid. We are told over and over about her wonderful clothes, her style, but actually our eyes tell us she was rubbish at it. She didn’t know herself or her body. Course it was a bad time for clothes, stodgy suits, thin as thin nylons, ghastly shoes, huge bingy out dresses, women looked frights, totally un-sexy and immobile, rigid like dolls. The men were just as bad. Poor Grace was meant to fancy Cary Grant, an elderly man who could hardly bend, let alone shag anyone.
The book is a paean to Kelly, so it is uninteresting, we are left to guess what she was really like. Well I am sure she never knew herself, brought up in middle class Philadelphia where women were meant to be healthy, virginal girls next door who calmed and stabilised men. She was taken up by the film studios at eighteen, and they owned their women, their looks, opinions and escorts (they weren't allowed friends or lovers or even husbands). Unlike her contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, whose nature rebelled, Grace was pliable and complied, but got out early via marriage, to an unattractive man she hardly knew (but was a Prince). She continued to live her stately, sedate, life, seemingly out of touch with her true nature. She was therefore suited to be a princess, but what sort of 'job' is that for a person?
Her life is a glaring example of how society 'puts upon' i.e. moulds women to be some sort of peculiar, useless creature. At least their clothes and 'beauty' regime drives the economy, that's something I suppose. No doubt the same is true today, being in it though, we just cant see it, we think its 'normal'.
Backstage Passes (Life with David Bowie) (1990) by Angela Bowie
(Written after a 10 year gagging order) Reviewer: Eleanor
I was never very interested in David Bowie, but the story of his marriage with Angie was actually extremely interesting and I read this book in one day. They were young, she 22 and he 25 when they married but already his career as Fashion and Pop Icon was established. Why did David ask Angela to marry him? That is the question. They had been very attracted to each other and this is understandable, they are very similar, almost twins in fact in body and face and clothes and both bisexual. But when they married the initial mutual love passion, was over, that had only lasted a few months (a long time for David B though). A clue is given at the end of the story, David became dependent on a fixer called Corinne, when she disappears after a fall out with Angie, he goes after her, he cannot live without her. Corinne by this time had taken over the role of Angie.
Angie was a good fixer, ambitious, bold, capable, she cooked, cleaned, organised, sewed, found the houses, the band members, the managers, kept the groupies away - a typical capable woman managing an incapable man. She was in love with David, obsessed with his beautiful looks and his unobtainableness, but accepted from the start, so she says, he was going to shag everyone in sight, men and women. In fact he did that horrible man thing, asking her to marry him but 'Is It Going To Be Hard For You Knowing I Don’t Love You?'. She took lovers herself, men and women, loads of them, and drugs, and partying, and spending money, but you feel she would actually have wanted what all women want, an adoring and faithful man, even is she wasn’t totally faithful herself. Remember she was very young. The most interesting thing for me was, despite her scary sexual prowess and number of lovers, she never had an orgasm - not until much later, when she was older and never with David (truly weird??).
Most of the pop and fashion icons of the time have walk on rolls in this book, they are all drug and sex mad, none come out too well though Angie loves them. Do you remember an obscure pop singer called Dana – I did, I always wondered why she was on 'Top of the Pops' cos she was soppy and the songs no good, well – all is revealed in this book. And much much more …
Postscript: Checking Wikipedia I see that Bowie married a beautiful sophisticated Somali model with only one short name post Angie and stayed with her for the rest of his life, so he went the way of these 'made it' cool people, happy faithful (?) marriage with wonderful woman, children, grounded in religion and good sense. Poor Angie, she couldn't compete with that, women somehow cant reinvent themselves in that way. Bowie died of liver cancer aged 71, pretty good considering the abuse his body had been through.
PSS: Bowie's and his circle great interest in the occult, derives from drugs I think, I only mention it because so many people have the same obsession today.
Desert and Forest (1928) L M Nesbitt
This is a fabulous book, a must read, the story of the first white men to walk the length of Abyssinia (Etheopia), three of them with about 15 local men of different tribes from NE Africa, with camels and mules. A terrible ordeal, three men were killed, one went mad, the others hardly survived, Nesbit (who was 36) states categorically the temperature was 167 F which is 75 C and as he was a scientist I believe him, this on several stages of the journey, they would put their hands in their arm pits which at 98.4 gave their finger tips slight relief. Lack of water, sand storms, sharp rocky ground were the worst physical sufferings, mental sufferings don’t get a look in, the heat was so extreme. There were beautiful parts of the country, not so hot, striking colours, dramatic geology, sometimes forests (though these even worse to negotiate than the desert) and relief when finding rivers which amazingly do flow through the extraordinary country.
The humanity of the people is striking, both the three white men (two Italians, one English) and the 15 native men, all go to huge lengths to support each other, respect each other and care for the animals which they love dearly and look after with love, as best they can in the horrible conditions. Often there was no food for the animals, and worse, no water, but the bond was strong, men and beasts were in it together. I made many notes as archaeologically it was fascinating, the burial monuments, tribal customs (in some cases the oldest most frail man was the chief, in others the most blood thirsty), why they hung on in those awful living conditions (because of antagonistic neighbours who would kill them if they strayed into neighbouring territory). This is a book I shall keep, you will have to search for it on line to get your copy.
From Newspapers on Line
Nesbitt died in a small plane accident in S America in 1935 aged 44, he was living in Rome and is described as a writer and explorer. In 1912 he obtained first class school diploma from Camborne Mining School Cornwall, 21. Born 6 June 1891 After Mine school he went out to the Rand and remained in Joburg for four years qualifying as first class mine manager at 25. he subsequently managed a Mn mine in Sardinia, worked as an engineer on Cuban railways, worked in Venezuela on petrol survey and prospected for platinum in W Abyssinia. He was killed in air crash flying from Rome to Berlin July 1935. His book Gold Fever gives a ruthless picture of Europeans, Africans and Chinese in the maw of gold getting machine. The miners were compelled to work with such a straining concentration that at the end of the day their bodies wd not relax properly and they cd not sleep at night. Nesbitt was accused of starting a war later, one side stating his journey was to prospect for oil, though no doubt he was a pawn in a power struggle.
The Survival of the Fittest by Mike Stroud (1998)
A great title, the book is what it says it is, how fit people survive and unfit people, I fear 99% of us, succumb to cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, bad feet, weakness, aches, pains and old age, in fact, just about every ailment going. Stroud states what is obvious but rarely talked about backed up with medical evidence and years of his own experience as a serious endurance runner and medical doctor. Stroud accompanied Ranulph Fiennes on some of his journeys, most notably and described in the book, the trek across the Antarctic pulling all their stuff, fulling in crevasses, and an awful running trip across the Sahara and others in mountains in America. He came to running through enjoyment and challenge. His thesis is that humans evolved to run, for 70,000 years they have been active, running after prey some of the time, moving gathering food, making houses, going about their business, all of the time except for sleep, women, men, old and young alike. Along with running they developed resilience and persistence.
Walking ten or 20 miles a day would be normal, everyday practice. Only in the last 100 years have people become sedentary, the instinct to conserve energy (because you will need all of it soon) and consume food (because you cant carry it with you and you don’t know when the next meal will be) dominates, nearly all people and all ages, starting in the 20s. Look around you, you will see he is right. Lots of epic stories of runs and expeditions, all great reading are recounted. In my version it ends with the seven marathons in seven days in seven (?) continents, he and Fiennes together. All the great and good feted this event and somehow it was for charity? I guess people sponsoring?. It was a fascinating read, you really felt the pain, made me pleased to be reading it and not taking part. He learnt a lot about endurance, and what the body does, (fills up with fluid in the legs apparently, pees blood) but ... why do it? We would be thinking carbon footprint of this mad adventure nowadays – at least I hope we would, with all the air flights involved. Not sure it would get the sponsorship today.
The Sovereignty of the Good by Iris Murdoch (1970)
This little book consists of three essays, The Idea of Perfection, On God and Good, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts. I read the book after listening to a R3 prog about Iris and philosophy. I enjoyed reading all three, they were clear, interesting and logical, and good for my brain, cleansing. However, the first two, seemed naïve, philosophers worrying about stuff they don’t need to and which most of us have sorted in more sophisticated and practical ways in any case. The last essay though I thought profound and had something new to say, or at least added to writing of authors as Tolstoy and Eckhart Tolle who I return to frequently. One quote:
“Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There I nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. ...”
much more of the same ...
Childhood, Leo Tolstoy, 1851
I read this as an antidote to Agatha Christie, and it definitely proved to be so. Many layered from the first sentence, showing the complexity of life and feelings, and the huge emotion, and struggle each of us has with being a good person and interacting with others. Childhood apparently was Tolstoy's first novel. I thought it must be his autobiography as it was so truthful and intense, but no, I was wrong, just great writing, but surely based on personal experience.
Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (1923)
I have never read an Agatha Christie though I have seen a few on telly. This one was holiday reading for me. It was pretty stupid, just the last page was clever, - I think this is typical of an AC book. I know my mother loved them and was very good at getting 'who dunnit', I imagine if you approach her books in this way, rather than as a novel, they are better. I shan't read another though.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (2009)
Reviewer: Rebecca June 24th 2019
This book was recommended by a customer, someone who trains women distance runners, we got into conversation. I didn’t have it in the shop but definitely will in future. What a great book, I spent Sunday and Monday reading it, sometimes in the garden and sometimes inside with the doors and windows open, stopping only to go for a run myself, and, running one field up and back with no shoes, think I will do this every time from now. So much in this book, crazy American peopleundertaking ultra runs, 50 miles ++, in scorching heat, up and down mountains, through Death Valley, women too, they often beat the men (as our own Jasmin Paris proves ). The evolution of humans was to run of course, that their niche, and why don’t we now, well loads do but the joy of running is counterbalanced by the need for efficiency (i.e. resting) and that is definitely winning out now, with people leading sedentary lives and over eating themselves into disease, old age and mental illness. The centre of the book is a race with the Tarahumara, a cave living ancient tribe of the mountains of Mexico renowned for their running, which they do for fun, from childhood to old age, men, women and children. Along the way we meet colourful and likeable characters (well except perhaps for Barefoot Ted), learn about running shoes (what a con), drug running and brutal murder in Mexico, coaches, great runners, food and much more. I couldn’t put the book down. Please read it and change your life.
His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement … there is not and never was a greater man than Emil Zatopek (I'd never heard of him?). p98
… The Tarahumara, the founders and makers of the history of mankind. Perhaps all our troubles – all the violence, obesity, illness, depression and greed we cant overcome – began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way. p99
Leadville's (dead mining town frozen up for nine months in the year ) only hope was tourism, which was no hope at all p58
And the cost of those injuries (i.e. foot and leg injuries)? Fatal disease in epidemic proportions. Humans really are obligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep roots in our evolutionary history ... if there's any magic bullet to make human beings healthy, it's to run. p168
as far back as 1976 Dr Brand was pointing out that nearly ever case in his waiting room – corns, bunions, hammertoes, flat feet, fallen arches – was nearly nonexistent in countries where most people go barefoot.p177
before the invention of a cushioned shoe, runners through the ages had identical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran with backs straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips. They had no choice: the only shock absorption came from the compression of their legs and their thick pad of midfoot fat.
“those fucking things are going to be dead tomorrow” Bob said, point at the FiveFingers on Ted's feet (i.e. Barefoot Ted, said to him from someone who well knew the country). p187
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1840-41)
Reviewer: James (June 2018)
I adore Dickens and couldn’t remember reading this one, so the anticipated pleasure of beginning it, and so it turned out to be. Perfect for June. Dickens was spiritually inspired with this story, so many deep insights into life, goodness, human character, the twists and turns of fate – typical Dickens in fact. You wonder how he knows all this in his comparatively short and active life, his knowledge of the life of the spirit. A hot line to the divine I believe.
It is perfect story for June and for now, this moment in my life. Our two main protagonists, with no money or possessions, pushed from their home, set out on a walking journey, trusting to God and the kindness of people, to walk across the English countryside in all its variety, taking comfort from Nature, simple buildings, and simple good people. Of course there are bad people in the story too and they do awful things, and one wonderful brave strong true good person, and of course, being Dickens and an observer of life, this good person is not educated or good looking, and has no money, but how precious he is.
The Universe and Dr Einstein by Lincoln Barnett; (1948)
1948 (8 printings) 1957 2nd edition (7 printings) 1957 (7 printings). Reviewer: Eileen
A beautifully written, spiritual book. I cant say I could explain to you now Einstein's theories any more than E=mc2 and the space-time continuum, which you just have to accept as fact and also that there is a General and Special Theory. I do understand from reading it that common sense is only that tiny fraction of the universe we perceive with our limited senses and the vast vast majority of reality is beyond normal common sense comprehension. Reading this book will shift your world view and led me to believe more in a Creator than I did before.
The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (1953)
A gross and pornographic book, very short at least, I skip read it in a day. The most interesting part was the final two pages, written by Bataille, his brief autobiography describing his appalling childhood and explains much of the book. He offloaded his dreadful background on whoever is brave enough to pick this book up and read it - and thus it continues into the future.
The Pilot's Wife Anita Shreve (1991)
The many, many re-prints of this book prove its worth, it is a tale of a marriage, a familiar story, of one partner finding out hidden secrets of the other, leading to reassessing life, relationships, everything.
Yiwara; Foragers of the Australian Desert by Richard A Gould 1969
Anthropologists Richard and Betsy Gould lived with a group of Aborigines in mid NW Australia in 1965-1966, learning their language and recording their daily lives. Yiwara means track, and is a word in constant use by the Gibson Desert Aborigines since it has several layers of meaning, from the material world to the spiritual. The group the Goulds lived with consisted of thirteen Nyatunyatjara people, these people had had contact with whites at a Mission Centre but had left and returned to their traditional way of life. Richard accompanied them in a landrover, he gave them tobacco and occasionally tools, in return for information, conversation, company and permission to record, photograph and learn.
Living with hunter gatherers is an archaeologist's dream, observing their daily life of collecting food (the women) hunting animals (the men), making tools and talking, talking, talking. Much is familiar to us, we would fit in, the politeness, different characters, interactions - the same as us, but much is fundamentally different. No possessions is the main thing leading to connexion to the land enacted in rituals that are learnt throughout life, accruing knowledge from others and from travelling to sacred sites. Some of it is grim, the male initiation ceremonies are gruesome and cruel but undertaken voluntarily, they don’t come to an end either, men open up old wounds in their most sensitive parts at any age.
Did you know they had stone circles and avenues, still used in the 1960s? - extraordinary, I didn’t, they are not as big as Stonehenge and Avebury but otherwise similar. These standing stone monuments were used both to herd and hunt animals but also represented the original dream time animals who established the world. Archaeological excavations have shown development in tool technology over thousands of years in Australia, the same as elsewhere, but they lived in the hunter gatherer way in the 20th century, in the hot hot country it was the best option.
When the whites came, their life changed for ever, enticed to the Missions by the availability of tools and food and people, they never went back to their desert life. Yet it was hard for them, they didn’t understand about work (though could be hard workers) or the social mores of the whites or about living in one place permanently. They lost the meaning to their lives and had not yet gained a new one.
The Uncoupling Meg Wolitzer (2011)
I enjoyed reading this, until it went into the fantastical. Meg W didn’t need to do this, the premise behind the novel – why do people go off sex and what happens to families when they do, is easily good enough to sustain a book (hundreds of books even), so I don’t know why she took it along this route. Probably laziness, the subject is too deep, too much, even for a great novelist to explain.
The Accursed Share Georges Bataille 1967
Georges Bataille expresses an interesting idea in this book, that the problem people have is not in earning a living, but what to do with their surplus. The Mexican Aztecs used their excess on sacrifice, Islam on militarism, American North West Indians on potlatch (huge parties), Tibet on monasteries, Medieval England monasteries, castles and warfare and today, now – cars (that last one I extemporise). There is much more to his theory than that, but being French and a philosopher, it is difficult to understand and I have not retained it, but I really enjoyed reading it and have recommended to friends and ordered more of his books.
Poacher's Pilgrimage; an island journey Alastair McIntosh 2018
For anyone who is a walker and/or adventurer, this is a book you will like. AM has the knack of making you feel you are there, in the wind and rain, hoping from one tufty tump to another in the bog, getting wet crossing streams, tiring walking up hills with a heavy pack, being uplifted by the resonance of the place – The Isles of Harris and Lewis where Alastair grew up. So many insights into spiritual and ecological truths, as an archaeologist I found it wonderful, lots of insights into how people lived in the community, not just practical things, but their minds and spirits. It was like having Alastair there and talking to him without interruption, his undivided attention on you.
Island Farm; Frank Fraser Darling, 1943
I loved this book, it had all the sense, interest and fun of Herd of Red Deer but directed towards two people wrestling a living from a windy island in NW Scotland in the war years. Frank and Bobbie (his wife) moved tonnes of rock and rebuilt a pier, tonnes of shell sand and slag and fertilised an 'inland', built a house, took sheep to other islands, bred and milked cows, battled with rats and welcomed all other wildlife that increasingly came to the island as it became richer in habitat. It's a brilliant read, totally relevant to today and always, I found it very insightful for archaeological features.
p74 Prof Toynbee in Study of History discusses the concept of Withdrawal and Return as a potent influence in the spiritual development of individuals. A period of withdrawal from the world may strengthen a man so that when he returns he vies for the energy he did not know he possessed. Christ began his mission after forty days in the wilderness. .... the truth of the concept is dimly realized by many of us as young men. A fault of our civilization is that it denies the wilderness to the great majority of young men.
p95 the longer I live the more convinced I am that a man cannot achieve wholeness unless he uses his hands as well as his head. Hands are part of the quality of humanness and their development in skills balances the tumbling, surging activity of our still young and inexperienced brain.
p111 both Labour and Conservative promise things to people, ease and pleasure, ... we need a great change of mind throughout our people, less of a desire to get and more of a notion of giving to the community. Most of us can be generous to those we love and know; the test comes in serving and giving to those we do not know.
p175 the island years impressed on us most surely the sin of waste, ... in being resourceful and in never taking goods from a needy outside world if we could help it
Snow Country 1956; Thousand Cranes 1959; Yasunari Kawabata
Two poetic stories, about men in yearning relationships with much younger or much older gentle, kind, women. The relationship, impossible to grasp or define, is inter weaved with landscape and beautiful objects, snow, linen (the most prized is made by women under 24 in the snowy mountain country), pottery vessels all imbued with soul. Magical but real tales of people struggling to understand themselves.
A Herd of Red Deer; Frank Fraser Darling; 1935
A classic and fantastic book, everyone should read it, in fact it should be compulsory reading for everybody in England, in the world even. Read it, to learn about animals, about humans, to walk barefoot with someone in the Scottish Highlands for 35 miles, in awe of this wonderful animal nearer to God and understanding than I have ever been. Their story will bring tears to your eyes and fill you with wonder about the many ways animals choose (yes all have free will to choose) to live. As a practical aside, as an archaeologist it has been a massive help, all those antlers we find on archaeology sites, oh and yes, probably we should re-introduce wolves, for the deer and environment sake.
How to Find Love in a Bookshop; Veronica Henry; 2016
A dear friend generously gave me this new book and I duly read it, for her sake. I am pleased I did, at one point, about 7/8ths in I thought it might actually be interesting, that people were interweaving through the bookshop which acted as a node, a connexion point, and the obvious girl would not end up with the obvious man, but no I was wrong. This was set in some sort of fantasy never never land, where there are queues waiting to buy and staff and tills ring in bookshops (no, no and no), and where there are fanciable men who like and love women and are loyal to them (no, no and no) and where unscrupulous developers set up new glove factories that will earn millions of pounds in a picturesque Cotswold town (err … No …). So personally I couldn't get round any of that, but I did finish the book and can remember most of it.
The Mandarins Simone de Beauvoir 1954
This is a big book, a long read, but absorbing and a real page turner. The page turner is the usual, good writing and who is having an affair with whom, but behind this, the background, is the legacy of the French Resistance and the struggle of France in the immediate post 2nd World War years to establish their place in the world. French intellectual society wanted to count, to influence world events. The Left was strong, the Communists were big and intellectual society leant strongly towards Russia and against America, obviously mad to us, - with the benefit of hindsight, but not to them, there and at that time. Their predicaments seem a bit silly, again, with the benefit of hindsight. For example, finding out about the Stalinist concentration camps was a crisis, if they denounced the Gulags, as obviously they should, it condemned the whole Leftist movement and laid the way open to Fascism, if they said nothing, they were guilty of Fascism. Now we know that socialism can be democratic and respectful of human rights, but coming out of a brutal occupation, to them that didn't seem an option.
I learnt a lot about immediate post war France, it was riddled with the war legacy, there were dreadful retributions, men who had fraternized with the Germans were brutally murdered, women publicly shamed and imprisoned, heroes of the Resistance were lionized. What about women, what did I learn about them from a lead philosopher of the 20th C? Though the main protagonist was a woman and had a serious job (a psychologist), the others were mostly decorative, leading society lives, providing entertainment for the men taking up possibly 15% of their time. Mdm de Beauvoir doesn't mention it and I only learnt later, but French women didn't get the vote until 1944. This from the land of liberty, equality, fraternity. All that War business, and Occupation and working and politicising and women had no say in it, only manipulation and influence. Extraordinary.
The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey 1966
The most profound book in the shop
I had a first edition of this book in the shop and as an archaeologist puzzling about when villages and boundaries were first established in the UK, I was attracted by the title, not the cover which looked not for me (but now I get it). I am so pleased I picked it up, first it is an excellent read, Ardrey is witty and super-bright and interesting. He draws on a wide range of studies by ecologists, ethologists (the study of inherited behaviour), ornithologists and anthropologists, describing the extraordinary and inexplicable lifestyles and homing instincts of animals, including humans. His thesis is that territory, your space – be it one foot (if you are a puffin), a short stretch of river (if you are a beaver or stickleback) or many miles if you are a lion or grazing herd animal, is the main principle of life, the thing you will fight and die for and spend much of your life defending. The need for territory is psychological, not physical. His theories explain why some of us animals live really, really close to our neighbours and squabble at each other over an invisible line. We don’t have to do that, we could move away, but we don’t want to move away, we want to maintain our patch and keep others out of it.
Ardrey considers territory is the main guiding principle of evolution. He has convinced me.
Humans are group animals, having territory and a common enemy (usually them just over there) keeps us alive, on our toes, full of ingenuity and capable of great selfless acts to keep our space for our tribe, and mercilessly cruel to those trying to take it away. Ardrey goes on to reveal much more about our 'human' condition, which he reveals so logically is an 'animal' condition actually, with the same fundamental driving forces shared with all other animals, even the 'planarium worm' a creature so basic it hardly has senses at all, that existed in pre-Cambrian days. The three fundamentals for all creatures are identity, stimulation and security – their opposites are anonymity, boredom and anxiety. The last, security is the first to be sacrificed to the other two. Bundled into identity is jostling for power and all those nasty characteristics it engenders. Like vitamins there must be a daily dose of these three fundamentals, and if you go for security you will become 'bankrupt' in yourself (i.e. depressed). Being 'in love' and war satisfy the three main needs, especially war. It brings identity (your rank, role), stimulation (yes there are long periods of boredom but people don’t know this when they launch into it) and you are, you believe, fighting for security. What holds the group together is antagonism to the other, and sometimes to hazard, to natural disasters, when people temporarily come together to fight off a common threat.
These needs may just be evolutions driving wheel, forcing genes into competition to be forever selecting the best for the current condition.
Lots lots more in this book, written by an actor, not a scientist, only an actor with profound understanding of life would be able to write such a book.
Night and Day by Virginia Woolf; 1919
Reading this book was such a relief after finally finishing Netherland, so nice to enter the real world of women, for example wondering why someone is looking awkward when you hand them a cup of tea, or of why that person said that with a rather strange look and, ultimately, whether you should marry the man who (says) he adores you but you are not excited by. It is the world of gentle England with undertones of change and revolution, of activists spreading the word of total suffrage, of disquiet at rich and poor. The war is not mentioned, rather it is all about internal conflicts, within person, within England. I am sure Virginia Woolf drew on much of her own experience to write Night and Day, and the characters portrayed and probably some of the scenes are people known to her, which makes it all the more valuable to read.
Netherland; Joseph O Neill; 2008;
This book was written to tap into the post Twin Towers national trauma in America and also the UK. It doesn't have anything to do with the outrage, but the story is set in New York after it had happened and it is mentioned rather a lot. It is a very blokey sort of book, or rather a 'Guyish' sort of book as it is extremely American. The main protagonist who is Dutch curiously plays cricket, but somehow, the cricket doesn't tie into the plot. Race is everything, Americans are obsessed by it, and men are inarticulate, tough and not very nice. I actually didn't like the females either, but as it was written by a man, I suspect he got their motives wrong and misinterpreted. The book put me off men - again - and made me think how it is still so much a man's world and how separate the sexes are. I am reading a Virginia Woolf now - phew, back to the real world.
The Dark Tower Phylis Bottome 1916
Reviewer: Rebecca, August 2018
I quite enjoyed reading this book, tho it was very Old Fashioned. The language was the hardest thing to get over, ‘jolly’ ‘awfully’ preponderated, the second hardest thing was to feel any sympathy with the Staines family who divided women into good types – who you protected and looked after regardless and ‘bad’ types for which anything goes. After this though the story was good, I read it easily, it was streaks ahead of the average detective novel type of today, miles ahead of them. I was puzzled though over the American spelling when it was set so clearly in an upper class ante diluvian shires family of England, all huntin and shootin and drinking. Later I found, not to my surprise, that Phylis B was a teacher who had taught Ian Fleming briefly, the book reminded me of the Bond novels in their tone, but it was better than them (not hard).
The Possessed Fyodor Dostoevsky 1872
Reviewer: Gillian August 2018
This novel is very 'Dostoevskyan', full of dark forces, dense passions and terrible events. It was written in 1871 and shows just how long the Russian Revolution was on the boil and just how brutal and bloody is was destined to be. Hatred and passion were churning in people, in all classes, the serfs wanted revenge for the lack of dignity and poverty they had suffered for centuries, but also the aristocracy were boiling, so quick to take life offence for something as little as a perceived insult but often big things too, inheritance was everything to the aristocracy. By 1870 estates were no longer reckoned in serfs, so in order to maintain their lifestyles landowners were selling timber, land, the family silver, but buyers were few and far between.
Dostoevsky knew about evil people, both educated and not, prepared to commit murder for a few roubles, and be caught with the severe consequences that meant. Streets were muddy, alleys dark and murderous, houses cold, horses and carriages dangerous, people drank, husbands beat their wives. Brutality was like the weather, something that just was. The main thing is though that the reader and main protagonist (a shadowy figure we hardly meet) know what is right and wrong, just what we would think is right or wrong today in fact, that has not changed. The circumstances in which people live though are very different. Therein lies Dostoevsky's message, how to maintain sanity and a broadly satisfying life, whatever the circumstances you find yourself in.
Shelley; The Pursuit by Richard Holmes; 1974
Richard Holmes is a brilliant writer and biographer and Shelley was his first book. It won Holmes prizes and started him on his career path. Shelley is an excellent subject of course with a stack of letters and diaries to consult and a colourful life, but only someone able to read it all and understanding it and the human being behind it, someone like Richard Holmes, is worthy of the task.
Shelley was first and foremost a political activist, and only secondly a poet and Holmes' biography reflects this, for it is as much a story of people's struggle for political representation as it is about Byron, Shelley's menage a trois (or quatre or cinq) and his travels around England and Europe fleeing creditors and authorities. Shelley rarely stayed more than a few months in any of the magical places he lived. Holmes's book reads like a novel but is better, because there are questions, we cannot know about some key events in Shelley's life (who was the father, who the blackmailer, did that assault really happen) but only guess.
I loved the story, and liked Shelley, though I didn’t like that he didn’t pay his debts and never intended to (a criminal in fact) and didn’t work at a paying job, though he did work very hard at his poetry and political writing. If he had been born a couple of hundred years later, he would have been a TV pundit perhaps, saying acid things on chat shows, but also a writer, he could get up early, and work, and he was passionate about equality and freedom. In his view this is what a poet was for.
“For the most unfailing herald, or companion, or follower, of an universal employment of the sentiments of a nation to the production of beneficial change is poetry, meaning by poetry and intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions respecting man and nature.”
Much of Shelley's perspicacious pamphletering and political poetry was not published until years after his death, much of it in 1839 after the Great Reform Act plus a few years, though his obscure and difficult Queen Mab apparently became underground literature inspiring Working Men's Groups (though it is hard to think how, I and my poetry group found it unintelligible).