Die Varus Schlacht
Elaine Pagels and Karen L.
The Right Stuff
Things Fall Apart
A Man of the
Gauss: Eine Biographie
Up The Country
Family of Secrets
Sonia and Alexandre
Africa Trek II
Walking on Glass
The Crow Road
The Blue Afternoon
The Destiny of Nathalie
An Ice Cream War
On the Yankee Station
A Hoosier Holiday
Empire of the Sun
Endurance - Shackleton's
Your Blue-Eyed Boy
With Your Crooked Heart
Talking to the Dead
Robert W. Felix:
and Evolutionary Leaps
A River Sutra
A House in Flanders
M. L. West:
Ancient Greek Music
Johnny Panic and the Bible
The Bell Jar
Down from the Hill
are Better Looking
The Loneliness of
the Long Distance Runner
The Man Who
Adam and Eve
and Pinch Me
Every year in April there is a run from Hermann's
Denkmal near Detmold to the Sparrenburg,
here in Bielefeld. It is just over 31km, running up and down the hills of
Wald (or Forrest), and it is quite an exhausting run. About 7000
people take part each year. Although the surroundings would be nice without
all those other 6999 people, the problem is that the trail - along Hermann's
Weg - is sandy for large stretches, and it takes an hour to get past all the
people who got a better place at the start, then slowed to a walk along the
narrow path where the sand is more compressed. So after an hour of running
up and down hills in soft sand, passing all those walkers, I was totally
exhausted! The run is called "Hermann's
Lauf (or Run)". For a year or two we ran with the club which organized
Hermann's Lauf, and for the members, there was a special run the weekend
beforehand, so Hermann's Weg was free of all those other runners obstructing
the way and I was able to achieve a time comfortably within three hours.
The reader who is unfamiliar with these things will
undoubtedly pose the question: Who is this "Hermann", and what is this all
To begin with, Hermann was not even named Hermann at all!
In fact his real name was Arminius.
He was a member of the tribe of the Cherusci,
who occupied the land around here in the year 9 AD. The name "Arminius" was
undoubtedly a Latinized version of his tribal name, whatever that was. But
pronouncing it slowly, one hears the words "armed men" in the name Arminius.
Martin Luther, when he was not translating the Bible, also thought about
this, and so he decided to translate the name Arminius into the German
language, yielding the name Hermann, which, when pronounced slowly sounds
like "Heer Mann" or in other words "Army Man" in English. But perhaps his
real tribal name was more like "Siegfried" (as in the Saga of the Nibelung).
Then we have Sieg-fried = "Siegen-Frieden", which is to say Victory-Peace.
Many people believe that the Saga of the Nibelung - with Valhalla, the
Rheingold, Wagners's operas, and all that, was really based on the story of
Hermann and the Romans. (A rather scholarly discussion of these things can
be found here.)
Whatever his name was, the fact is that he was a highly
placed officer in the Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius
Varus, patrolling the country along the middle reaches of the Weser River,
perhaps at Porta Westfalica, near present-day Minden. The Romans considered
their new colony, which they named "Germania", to be already subdued at that
stage of things. The somewhat optimistic idea was that Germania extended as
far east as the Elbe river. Beyond that was the Kingdom of the Marcomanni,
led by King Marbod, somewhere out in the Carpathian Mountains, or whatever.
Although Marbod was practicing restraint and avoiding conflict, the Romans
saw him as a potential danger, and
as such, they were determined to liquidate him and his kingdom before he
caused any trouble. Thus the idea of preemptive warfare predates George W.
Bush by more than 2000 years!
The plan of the Emperor Augustus was to eliminate Marbod
using a pincer strategy, with one column of Legions marching eastwards from
the already pacified Germania, and the other, led by that great warrior
Tiberius, marching up through the recently pacified Illyricum (i.e. the land
which was until recently Yugoslavia). But, as Fortuna would have it, the
peoples of Illyricum rebelled just as the legions were marching through,
thus putting a stop to the plan of attack on Marbod. It was all Tiberius
could do to get things back under control in that part of the world, and so
the whole Marcomanni War plan was put onto the back burner for a number of
years. Thus Varus' patrol along the Weser in the year 9 AD was not supposed
to be an aggressive thing. They were just showing the flag out on the
outposts of civilization, before a comfortable retreat back to the winter
quarters in the fort at Haltern on the Lippe River, more in the heart of
Arminius was not in command of a Roman legion. No. After
all, even though he was a citizen of the Republic and had even been knighted
by Augustus, still, he was considered to be a barbarian and so he had no
prospect of advancing into the Roman Senate and becoming a member of the
patrician class of Rome. In fact, he commanded the auxiliary troops,
consisting mostly of mixed tribesmen recruited from throughout Germania. But
even these auxiliaries had undergone the hard and exacting training of a
normal Roman legionary.
Yet, secretly, Arminius planned a surprise attack on the
legions of Varus, using his auxiliaries and whatever further rustic forces
might feel motivated to join in the fray. There resulted a running battle
over three days. The scene of the final slaughter was a trap, which seems to
have been recently discovered through archaeological excavations at
Kalkriese, at the northern end of the hills of the Wiehengebirge, near
Osnabrück. Three Roman legions were totally wiped out. This was a
catastrophe for Rome, having been already so weakened by the war in
Illyricum. Soon Augustus died and Tiberius became emperor. The whole
complicated business of the Roman succession, family intrigues, and so on,
meant that the incompetent Germanicus was sent to Germania to calm things
down and regain control over the colony. He made a mess of things, and so
the Romans gave up and decided to just be satisfied with Gaul. Out of
frustration, some decades later, they decided to invade and conquer England.
But the Scotts gave them just as much trouble as the Cherusci had done
earlier in the Teutoburger Wald.
And so the world went on, and at the beginning of the
19th century, at a time when Germany remained divided into a patchwork of
small principalities, each led by an often oppressive little duke, or
prince, the idea of Hermann, as the Unifier and Emancipator of Germany took
hold. Thus was Hermann's monument built. And even some of the Nazi's got on
to Hermann. (However Hitler himself found the idea of Rome to be more
appealing, and thus he was not so enthusiastic about Hermann, who, after
all, stabbed his comrades in the back in order to obtain some sort of
This book was a fascinating read, giving much detail
about life in Rome back then. It is extremely scholarly and painstakingly
researched. (The bibliography alone covers 37 pages. And the list of Notes
on the text, a further 43!) In particular, I hadn't realized the key role
that Tiberius played in this whole drama. I had only associated him with the
scandal which delighted Suitonius. The book gives a clear view of these
episodes of ancient history, and the way they have been used - and misused -
in more recent times. Some people will consider the year 2009 to be
"Hermann's year", since it is the 2000th anniversary of the Varus Battle in
the Teutoburger Wald. The town of Detmold will probably make much of this,
in order to promote tourism. But most Germans these days have probably never
even heard of Hermann. In contrast to the nationalistic excesses of the 19th
century, this ancient history is mainly of interest to the archaeologist and
to people like me, who enjoy speculating about what life was like back in
Judas, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King
This book was a Christmas present. There was a
program on TV some time ago about the Gospel of Judas, which I found to be
interesting. So this book was the result. It seems that the actual
manuscript, on sheets of papyrus, was discovered somewhere in Egypt by
treasure hunters sometime in the 1970s. Carbon-14 dating has established the
fact that it was written around the year 275 A.D. The treasure hunters sold
it to a dealer in Cairo, from whom it was stolen, and so on and so forth. It
was shown to an American Ph.D. student in Geneva in 1980, then it
disappeared. It was deposited in a humid safety deposit box in Hicksville,
New York, for 17 years. Then it was put in a deep freezer(!) which caused
half the ink to fall off the papyrus. Finally, in 2001, the person who
claimed ownership of the thing, Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos, gave it to an
institution in Basel, insisting that it be called the "Tchacos-Codex" in
honor(?) of her father, Dimaratos Tchacos, who may, or may not have been
responsible for ruining it so that half of the manuscript remains
unreadable. Also, numbers of individual pages from the manuscript seem to
have been sold to other criminal elements throughout the world. Good luck to
them! Are they so happy about having such things which they must hide from
the authorities forever? This is like the crazy people who stole Munch's
"The Scream". What use would such a famous painting be to anybody, who could
never show it anybody else? And what use could an isolated, disjointed page
of deteriorating papyrus be to anybody who has paid big money to possess it?
In any case, such pages are - at least for now - lost as far as the curious
readers of this newly found Gospel are concerned.
So this amusing story of rapacious criminality reflects
the subject matter of the manuscript: namely religion. But the loss is not
really as great as one might imagine. The missing passages, giving the
imagined dialog between Jesus and Judas, can be satisfactorily filled in by
analogy to the various gnostic writings - in particular the Nag Hammadi
codices which were discovered in 1945 - which had already been known. In
fact, I have now discovered that there has been a revival of gnosticism,
which you can also examine at the website of The
I am certainly not going to try to summarize what I have
gleaned from a 10 minute perusal of the Gnostic Society's internet presence.
For all I know, this book Reading Judas,
may be nothing but a description of gnostic belief and its relationship to
the newly discovered Gospel of Judas. In any case, it was written in Large
Print, which reminds me that I must get a new pair of reading glasses.
But I have found
that reading large print means that it is possible to read the book
So what does the book say? It describes the
situation of the Christians up until the time in 313 A.D., when the emperor
Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, in which Christianity became
tolerated. Before then, it was considered to be a duty of every Roman
subject to acknowledge the supremacy of the Roman Empire. Perhaps this is
analogous to the situation in the U.S.A. today, where the Department of
Homeland Security requires all subjects of the U.S.A. to acknowledge the
supremacy of the American Empire. However, in the Roman version of the
D.H.S., the Test of Subjugation involved sacrificing an animal to the gods
of Rome. The inner organs of the sacrifice were then spilled out onto the
floor, to be examined by an official priest. As I explained in an earlier
review, this was a practical method used in the ancient world for resolving
the problem of obtaining an answer from the gods, who, despite loudly
repeated questioning, steadfastly and obstinately refused to answer the most
basic appeals of the devout.
Unfortunately, some of the early Christians believed they
would suffer eternal damnation in the Fires of Hell if they agreed to
perform this Roman ceremony of subjugation. The punishment meted out by the
Roman D.H.S. for a lack of proper subjugation was even worse than that of
its modern variant. The miscreant would be thrown in a dungeon, then
tortured, and perhaps killed horribly in a spectacle in the Coliseum. Thus
Christianity was an underground sect, perhaps similar to the situation of
the Falun Gong people in modern China. But many of the leaders of
Christianity in Rome asserted that the way to Paradise was to suffer a
horrible death through torture, thus becoming a glorious martyr. This
salvation through suffering meant that the priests were advocating a human
blood offering to their God, something that even the Romans found to be
But this idea became the backbone of the official
Christian church. The gnostics found it to be revolting, and contrary to the
teachings of Jesus. The true path to enlightenment is through personal
knowledge. For them, all churches, or people who claim to be priests,
bishops, popes, and whatnot, are serving this false God.
It all sounds rather like a sensible version of Buddhism!
Perhaps I will have another look or two through the web pages of the Gnostic
Society some time to find out more about all of this.
I think there was a movie made of this book.
Whether or not this is true, the concept of "The Right Stuff" seems to have
become a standard expression in modern usage. I had often seen quotes, or at
least references to the book, saying that in particular Chuck
Yeager was - or is - the prime example of a pilot with the Right
While this may be true, in fact this rather longish book
(436 pages) is mainly concerned with describing the seven original Mercury
astronauts, and the whole hoopla surrounding that business back then, in the
early 60s. I remember it all well, since I was also a young teenager back in
those days. Tom Wolfe examines the mood of the U.S.A. back then. He compares
the seven astronauts to the primitive idea of Individual Warriors, like the
biblical David and Goliath, going out in front of the opposing armies to
fight to the death before the true battle starts, giving an omen of the
preferences of the gods. This was the height of the Cold War between the
U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. The Russian warriors prepared themselves in secret,
suddenly shocking the world with their amazing feats. But the Mercury Seven,
and their wives and children, were exposed to the full view of an
increasingly hysterical public. When John Glenn arrived in New York for his
ticker-tape parade, the streets all the way out to the airport were lined
with people with glazed eyes, pouring out their emotions to the brave
warriors. Even the traffic policemen directing the motorcade were openly
Quite frankly, I can't remember having been so
overwhelmed as to start crying back then. But I do remember that it was a
spectacular shared experience on television. Who can forget Shorty Powers -
the "Voice of Mission Control" - telling us that everything is "A-OK"? And
that "the ignition sequence has started" and we have "Lift Off"! Even now,
these words bring back a feeling of excitement. A wonderful nostalgia. The
often garbled communications between CapCom and the lonely astronaut so far
out in space!
John Glenn's flight in October, 1962 coincided with the
Cuban Missile Crisis. But after that, the Cold War cooled down, and all the
hysteria about manned space-flight did too. I think that when Neil Armstrong
and "Buzz" Aldrin finally landed on the moon, many people just said "So
what?", "Who cares?". The U.S.A. was bogged down in Vietnam, and I was
concerned about the possibility of being forced into that mess as well!
And so here we are now in the year 2009. The
space-shuttle has proved to be an overly complicated, accident-prone
mistake. More reliable are the Russian Soyuz capsules - which are hardly
bigger than the tiny Mercury or Gemini capsules of the 1960s - for servicing
the overly expensive, seemingly unnecessary space-station. The moon is far
away. I would be willing to bet that no human will land on the moon between
now and the year 2050. In fact, I even wonder if any humans will ever land
on the moon again?
With every television satellite, mobile telephone, GPS,
weather, or military spy satellite, and so on and so forth; with every lost
bag of tools, explosive bolts for separating the parts of the rockets from
one another, and on it goes; with all of this space junk, the space around
the earth is becoming filled with flying missiles whose relative speeds are
perhaps 10 times greater than that of a rifle bullet! How many hundreds of
thousands, even millions of bullets are flying around up there right now? We
are gradually burying ourselves underneath a deadly canopy, and at some
time, the critical mass of this canopy of junk will be with us. Small pieces
will crash into larger pieces, causing an explosion yielding hundreds of
further small pieces. Some time in the future, there will be a gradual
chain-reaction, whose end result will be to confine humanity permanently to
the earth. I had long put off getting a satellite TV antenna, since I
thought that as soon as I put it up, the satellite might simply be knocked
out. However, it seems that this celestial Armageddon will take a few more
years to develop. Twenty years ago, when that doddery old Ronald Reagen was
talked into communicating his "Star Wars" fantasy to the general public, I
thought that perhaps some forward-thinking people were imagining that it
might be possible to clear out all the garbage using some sort of laser
technology. But clearly nothing will come of that. It's already too late.
A few sad, lost souls continue to animate themselves with
the idea of a space
elevator, based on carbon nano-tubes, not realizing, or willing to
realize, that it would immediately be blown to smitherines by the impact of
space garbage, creating a god-almighty mess as thousands of kilometers of
elevator falls to the earth below the lowest point of rupture. The future -
and indeed the whole history of humanity - lies exclusively here on earth.
And so both the past and the future warriors with the Right Stuff are flying
the latest, hottest jet planes. Space capsules will only be possible in low
orbit, directly above the earth, where the atmospheric drag is sufficient to
bring down the debris. That is no longer the Right Stuff.
And reading this book, we learn more about life in these
tiny capsules than we really wanted to know in the first place. Do we want
to know that the astronauts circled the earth with a thermometer, attached
to an electrode, stuck deeply into the rectum? Do we want to know that
during Gordon Coopers flight, the electronics were put out of action due to
the increasingly fine mist of urine floating around the capsule? And worst
of all, do we want to know about the lives of the chimpanzees who were sent
up before the humans? They not only had thermometers in their rectums, but
also catheters in their penises, and various other electrodes stuck into
other parts of the body. They were required to push buttons in response to
various flashing lights in order to test whether or not people might be able
to remain alert in space. If they didn't perform quickly, they received
painful electrical shocks through electrodes strapped to their feet. The
chimpanzee who preceded John Glenn into orbit, Chimpanzee Number 85 (who was
renamed "Enos" for publicity, just before the flight) had been captured in
Africa two years before. More than all the other chimpanzees, he rebelled at
the continuous torture through electrical shocks. He tried to bite the
prison guards at every opportunity. Finally, they put him in a closed box
for two weeks, letting him sink within all his urine and feces. When they
brought him out, his spirit was broken, and he pushed the buttons more
furiously than all the other chimpanzees in order to avoid the torture. This
resulted in his blood pressure rising to 210 over 190! How horrible! The
whole thing was a true chimpanzee Abu Ghraib. So in reality, we see that the
space program had much of the Wrong Stuff, and this book turned into a
The book ends with a description of Yeager's spectacular
crash in an NF-104, which was an F-104 with a small rocket attached to the
tail. This was in December, 1963. He was trying to break the world altitude
record for airplanes taking off under their own power. The record at that
time stood at 113,890 feet, set by the Russian Gueorgui Mossolov in April,
1961 in an E-66A, which was a similarly modified Mig-21. The present record
is only slightly greater - 123,523 feet - which was achieved in 1977 in a
The speed record for rocket airplanes was set by the X-15
in 1967 at 4,510 mph. But for planes taking off under their own power, the
record seems to be 2,194 mph., set in 1976 by an SR-71 Blackbird. But it's
interesting to note that the Mig-25, which first flew in 1964, can also
achieve speeds beyond Mach 3. (According to the Wikepedia,
its speed is given as 2,170 mph.) This is much greater than the present
top-of-the-line F-22 Raptor. So all of this just shows that people had
already approached the limit in the 1950s and 60s.
This is the story of Daniel Weir, whose name in the
teacher's books of his school in Glasgow was "Weir, D.", thus leading to the
name "Weird". The story is that he likes writing songs, and he dreams of
becoming a famous writer/performer of pop (or perhaps rock?, or punk?, or
something or other) songs. The setting is 1975. He is six feet six inches
tall and, in his own estimation, ugly. His father is a violent drinker who
has been sent away for many years to prison. His family lives in the slum of
Espedair Street, Paisley, a suburb of Glasgow.
In order to become famous, he needs to find a band to
perform his music. What he finds is a group of slightly older youths - just
finishing school and getting started with life - who are performing in a
Glasgow club. Their name is "Frozen Gold". But they are just middle-class,
amateur kids, trying to sing the songs of those days: Beatles, Stones, and
so on. The two lead singers are Davey, who can play fast guitar solos, and
Christine, who is very good looking and has started studying physics in some
Scottish college. She was also a year ahead of Daniel Weir at school, and so
she recognizes him, exclaiming "Weird!" at the end of the concert. Thus he
is introduced; Frozen Gold starts singing his songs (and he plays bass
guitar in the background); a record company records an album; they become
great pop stars, touring Brittan and the world, and they are all rich and
The book starts off with Weird in a tragic state. We
don't know what the matter is. He is living in a huge, eccentric
pseudo-church, wallowing anonymously in all his famous pop, or rock, wealth.
Frozen Gold have broken up for some reason. Weird has assumed a false name
and tells his two friends that he is just the caretaker of the
pseudo-church. The friends are (1) an older Scottish drunk who continuously
gets into bloody fights, and (2) a younger slum-dweller who desperately
tries out as many drugs as possible in order to give himself a buzz. Weird
occupies himself by joining them in these activities while trying to conceal
his true identity.
We learn what life was like on tour with Frozen Gold. I
can well believe that Iain Banks has a better idea of such things than I do.
Sex, drugs, and ear-splitting noise. (Musicians-Earplugs
had not been invented in 1975! Maybe they just stuck cotton in their ears in
those days.) In particular, Weird found Christine to be most extremely
attractive, not only in her appearance, but also in the overwhelmingly
emotional way she sang and moved about on stage. Unfortunately for Weird,
Davey and Christine were a pair. So he had another girl, who was a singer in
the chorus. During a stay on the Greek islands in the extensive villa of
some tour promoter, Davey - who is always doing wild, crazy things - goes
off for the night in his private airplane with Weird's girlfriend, and so,
only fairly, Weird and Christine have a nice emotional get-together in the
warmth of a Mediterranean summer night. All of this is, of course,
accompanied on all sides with a huge consumption of whiskey, and everything
This fun and games is dampened by the unfortunate
circumstance that during a tour of the USA, Weird, in an unguarded moment
when conversing with an attractive young woman reporter, let it be known
that he was not prepared to give lip-service to the religious fanaticism of
those well-known elements of American society which cause so much trouble in
the world. This is obviously a reference to the time when those people got
together and made a bonfire of Beatles records back in 1972 or so, owing to
the fact that they considered John Lennon to be lacking in religion.
Thinking about what they did to Lennon, Weird is worried, and he even takes
to secretly wearing a bullet-proof vest on stage.
- But according to the reports of these things, Mark
David Chapman was not really a religious fanatic. He was simply an
insane psychopath who, owing to that absurd American fetish with guns, was
given the opportunity to gun down John Lennon in the most cowardly way
Anyway, in the book, both Davey and Christine die. Davey
is killed when a dry-ice fog machine filled with condensed water falls on
the stage during an ear-splitting crescendo of megawatt volume. The water
provides a short-circuit for all this electrical power through Davey's body,
electrocuting him. So that really shocked the band, and it was the end of
Frozen Gold. Then Christine started touring on her own, and she was gunned
down in the USA by a religious fanatic, killing her. As a result of these
tragic events, Weird decides to join them in Neverland, committing suicide
by drowning himself in the ocean off Iona, that traditional resting place of
the Scottish kings of yore.
While seeking refuge from the rain in a hotel on the road
to Iona, he overhears a record of Frozen Gold, and in particular, the voice
of Christine inspires him to continue with life. Thus he decides to set off
and rejoin his old school sweetheart, who is living a sober life in the
small village of Arisaig, which is on the west coast of the mainland of
Scotland, just south of Mallaig. There he surprises her as she is on the way
to help put up the Christmas decorations in the community center attached to
the church of Arisaig.
As a matter of fact, years ago, on a holiday trip to
Scotland with two small children in the back of the car, we decided rather
randomly to head for Mallaig, thinking vaguely of making it out to the
islands. It turned out to be a depressing place, smelling of rotten fish,
diesel, beer, and cigarette smoke. And the road from Fort William was
extremely tedious. In order to distance ourselves from Mallaig, we drove
back as far as Arisaig, stopping at an isolated house with a B+B sign
outside. A frail old woman lived there, obviously poor. She showed us to a
simple room where we stayed the night. Hot water for the shower could only
be obtained by inserting one pound coins into an electrical heater, which
grudgingly yielded about five minutes of warm water per coin. The price was
17 pounds per person - even for small children. In those days, the exchange
rate DM to £ was absurdly unfavorable, and thus it was an expensive stay in
an unpleasant place. To make matters worse, walking to the beach, we were
attacked by swarms of tiny biting flies. Thus the next day we drove as far
south, away from Scotland, as quickly as possible!
So to be quite frank, all of this seems to me to be quite
ridiculous. For one thing, while waiting for the old sweetheart at Arisaig,
Weird spends the time downing one beer after another at the local pub. Thus
his appearance at the straight-laced Arisaig church would hardly have been
as described in the book. Everybody knows that hard alcohol is a very
addictive drug. In reality, the seemingly happy ending of the book would
more likely turn into a repeat of the life of his parents, where the father
was a violent, sadistic drinker.
And anyway, pop stars don't die through electrocution via
amplification. They only lose their hearing that way. Instead they die of
overdoses of heroin, or of liver failure, or of AZT poisoning. Otherwise
they either gradually disappear, or else as with the Rolling Stones, they
continue ever onwards into an increasingly geriatric rock and roll future.
And they don't suddenly become angelic figures of high morality. The only
example I can think of is Cat Stevens, who became Yusuf Islam. Yet in his
Cat Stevens life, he sang quiet, moving songs; the opposite of the loud beat
of Frozen Gold. Yusuf Islam is an exception to the rule.
After all, pop stars want success, and so they say and
sing just what they hope the vast majority of people want to hear. Paul
McCartney exemplifies this life. In the early 1960s the Beatles were
enthusiastic, innocent young fellows discovering the world. In the late 60s
and early 70s, they were the voice of the peace movement. In the Reagenomics
80s, McCartney was the successful businessman. And so he has changed
continuously from one year to the next to conform with the changing ideals
Despite all this, Iain Banks is a great story teller, and
so I was able to live in the book, reading on from page to page, hardly
putting it down, just to find out what will happen to Weird.
The link here is to an academic site which
discusses the book sensibly, chapter for chapter. Having just googled the
title of the book, I see that there are many such sites in the internet,
tailor-made for the desperate school student who has been assigned this book
in the English class, with the task of writing one of those dreadful things:
a Book Report! Such students can thereby painlessly gather a few snippets,
amalgamating them into a collection of words to pacify the demands of the
But for those happy people like me, for whom school is
just a distant, unpleasant memory, it was wonderful to read this book in its
entirety. I can see why those eager English teachers, or the school boards
which control the events in the schools, particularly in the USA, assign the
book to their classes. It is hoped that thereby the school children will
better appreciate the backgrounds of people of African descent. This must be
especially true just now, since I am writing this the day after Obama has
been inaugurated as President. He is a man whose father was a true African,
and thus he has many close relatives living today in Kenya. The world is
filled with hope that he will lead us away from the evil which has polluted
the White House in recent years!
The hero of this book, whose name is Okonkwo, is a member
of a tribe of the Ibo-speaking people who live near the Delta of the Niger
River. I won't try to summarize the story, since this is done so well in all
of these internet sites. Looking at a map of Africa, we find Nigeria on the
west coast, on the inside of the bend. The European colonizers - knowing
practically nothing about the thing - simply drew its boundaries on a blank
map, without regard for the people living there. Nigeria was defined at the
time of Conrad's Heart of Darkness,
a book which Chinua Achebe himself has identified as a prime example of
European racism and self-satisfaction. (Thus gaining him the lasting ire of
many of these eager English teachers!) This ignorance of the colonizers,
producing completely illogical conglomerations for defining the countries of
present-day Africa, is the source of much of the chaos which exists in that
The book has three parts. Part One describes the
circumstances of life in an Ibo village, and the aspirations of Okonkwo, a
vigorous tribesman. Through hard work on his fields and bravery in battle he
rises to become one of the leaders of the tribe. Then Parts Two and Three
describe the destruction of the tribe. At first, European religion is
introduced in order to destroy the spirit of the people; then, using the
system of district commissioners, aided by native lackeys, "civilization" is
enforced upon the population. I am sure that many of the district
commissioners were honorable men who believed that their work was for the
good of the people. Yet it has resulted in the present catastrophic
situation in the Niger Delta.
So Part One of the book, before the arrival of the
missionaries, when the people were living freely within their own
civilization, is the most interesting to read. What was life like before
modern civilization took over the world? What was it like to live in a
native-American village, or say a tribe in northern Europe, Scandinavia, or
England, before the Roman armies destroyed things? The picture we have is
that people were poor, sick, hungry. Living in dirt. Unclean. Ignorant.
Trembling beneath the unknown forces of Nature.
But maybe the reality is just the opposite of this.
Perhaps life in those ancient villages was wonderful. Even going back 25,000
years or more, looking at the cave paintings of the Cro-Magnon people in
Ice-Age France, we see an elegance and lightness of spirit. As one of the
characters in the present book says at the end of Part Two:
I fear for
you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of
kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is
the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now
leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers
and his ancestors, like a hunter's dog that suddenly goes mad and turns
on his master.
Compare this with the situation of modern, civilized man, living in the
midst of a loud, polluted city. Friendless. Afraid to go out into the
sunlight without obscuring his eyes behind colored goggles, and without
smearing his skin with an oily white cream. Alone, afraid of death - which
has been banned behind curtains in huge hospitals filled with strangers.
Experiencing the world through a television screen. Modern life doesn't have
to be like that, but I can imagine that it is for a great many people.
Man of the People: This story takes place at a later stage of
things than in Things Fall Apart.
The country is presumably again Nigeria, although the capital city is named
"Bori", thus placing us in some ambiguous place. The narrator's name is
Odili Samalu. He is, or rather was, a school teacher in a village somewhere,
and the Big Man, Chief Nanga, comes to town from the big city to pay a
visit. In earlier days, before he became a Big Man, Chief Nanga had also
been a school teacher at Odili's school, and he had taught Odili when he was
a schoolchild, years ago.
This is the Nigeria of 1966, the time when this book was
first published. The English colonists have left and they have been replaced
by a collection of African politicians, epitomized by Chief Nanga. Achebe
uses much dialog in pidgin English, which is often difficult to decipher.
And we are treated to many of the truisms of the village people.
For example, the English came and "ate" - and left, thus
providing people with a model for "normal" behavior in the modern world. And
so it is only sensible that somebody like Chief Nanga, having attained the
position of Minister for Culture in the government, should also eat his fill
when he can: siphoning off as much money as possible into his own pockets;
driving big Cadillics; living in big houses with all possible luxuries;
sleeping with all the beautiful women who cross his path.
Odili, who believes in honest government and the higher
values of traditional village life, does not share the view that Chief Nanga
should eat his fill to overflowing. Nevertheless, as fate would have it,
Chief Nanga recognizes Odili in the village and invites him to spend some
time in his palatial mansion back in Bori. So Odili travels to Bori and
lives the luxurious life of the Greatly Privileged for a time, giving us an
insight into what makes Chief Nanga tick.
He is a big-hearted man who is friendly to all. What an
expansive, exciting, and yet exhausting life this is! The days are filled
with meetings, visitors, important decisions. As Christmas nears, Chief
Nanga's wife returns to the village, leaving Odili and Chief Nanga alone at
the mansion. Odili, who himself has a smallish circle of women friends with
whom to casually sleep, decides to invite one of them to spend the night at
the mansion. But of course Chief Nanga, rather than Odili, being higher in
the biological "pecking-order" of things, was the one to sexually mate with
the young woman. This upset Odili to such an extent that he packed his
clothes together and left in a huff.
He resolves to get his revenge by joining a new political
party and contesting the parliamentary seat of Chief Nanga. Also he resolves
to have sexual intercourse with the beautiful, young Edna, Chief Nanga's
future "parlor wife". All of this leads to catastrophe. The people stay
loyal to their Chief, and Edna's father, who has already received bride
money, is obviously hostile to Odili's plans.
In the end, Odili is beaten nearly to death; he falls
honorably in love with Edna, who returns his love; Nigeria is overcome in
chaos; and Chief Nanga and all the other corrupt politicians are forced to
leave. Their mistake - to use the beautiful village truism - is that they
"had taken enough for the owner to see". That is to say, if you take a small
amount so that the owner can't really tell the difference, then that is OK.
But if you overdo it with stealing, then there comes a point where it's no
longer OK, and the consequences are dire.
Chief Nanga is representative of many modern politicians
in today's world. He is a generous, larger-than-life figure, free of the
vicious streak we have had to endure in the Rumsfelds and Cheneys - and by
extension George W. Bush - of the last eight years. It is true that in the
USA or Europe, the Big Men must operate in more subtle ways. Their secret
lusts cannot be as honestly and openly displayed as Chief Nanga was able to
do. Whereas Chief Nanga was happy to deal with corruption on the order of
thousands of pounds, the modern politician is dealing with billions, even
trillions! being distributed to the secret dealers in money who are "eating"
today. But hopefully, finally, we are beginning to see that they have "taken
enough for the owner to see"!
The author, whose strange name doesn't really
reflect the subject matter of this biography, is clearly not a
mathematician. For example at least three or four times in this book he
asserts that Gauss' proof of the law of quadratic reciprocity has found
application in modern-day computer applications involving the RSA
cryptographic algorithm. But in reality, quadratic reciprocity has nothing
at all to do with it! The RSA algorithm is just a simple trick which
involves only the elementary Fermat "little theorem".
Then when describing Gauss' proof of the fundamental
theorem of algebra, he seems to become quite confused, waffling on about
"equations" in general, and seeming to say that Gauss discovered that n-th
degree "equations" have (at most) n roots. Of course that is not the
fundamental theorem, but rather a trivial consequence of the fact that the
numbers we use form a field. If a mathematician had written this biography,
then he would have described the very interesting process of coming to terms
with the idea of "continuity", which, if one has a clear definition of this
concept, provides a very simple proof.
In fact Gauss struggled with these ideas for many years.
His first proof, in 1799, which was the basis of his doctoral degree, was
not particularly rigorous. In reality, the first real proof seems to be that
of Argand in 1806. Argand was a self-taught amateur who privately
published an essay on complex numbers in Paris. It was ignored by the
establishment. In fact, Cauchy published Argand's proof in a book in 1821 without bothering to mention Argand's
name! Gauss, recognizing the gaps in his own attempted proof, published a
number of further attempts, but only his last effort in 1849 could be said
to contain a sufficient degree of rigor to correct his original proof. Of
course within the beautiful theory of complex analysis, the fundamental
theorem becomes a simple consequence of other basic ideas.
In the book much is made of the "Gauss curve", which is
basic to the theory of probability. Yet I do not see that Gauss was
responsible for, or even familiar with, the central limit theorem in
probability theory. In fact, at least according to the Wikipedia, the fact
that it is named the "Gauss curve" is a prime example of "Stigler's law of
eponymy", which states that "No scientific discovery is named after its
original discoverer"! (And I am sure that Gauss himself would be extremely
embarrassed to know that in the modern world, the obvious method of solving
systems of linear equations is called "Gaussian elimination".)
In reality, Gauss' calculations in probability were
mainly concerned with the practical "method of least squares" in finding a
best approximation to a range of experimental data. In particular the
asteroid Ceres had been discovered by the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi on
January 1, 1801, and he was only able to make a few measurements of its
position before it disappeared behind the sun. In order to find it again,
the astronomers extrapolated its supposed position by simply averaging the
figures of Piazzi. Gauss recognized that the method of least squares would
give a better extrapolation, and he predicted a point far away from the
position which most people had expected. Ceres was immediately rediscovered
at that point, and Gauss' fame throughout Europe was immediate and gigantic.
Gauss was a prodigious artist of arithmetic. His
extraordinary ability to add, multiply, and otherwise manipulate thousands
of numbers without mistake was the basis of the Ceres calculation. As the
further asteroids Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were discovered, he spent years
using the observations of their paths in order to estimate the mass of the
planet Jupiter. This is said to have involved many hundreds of thousands -
even millions - of calculations!
In todays world, all of these arithmetical calculations
are done by computer. In fact, in contrast to the world of 1800, things have
gone to the opposite extreme. Rather than dealing with lots of data by
trying to reduce the calculations to a minimum, modern scientists base their
theories on a paucity of data being fed into a computer which spends days
calculating at the rate of trillions
of operations per second, finally producing results which contradict common
sense. The most extreme and unfortunate example of this phenomenon is given
by the computer models of the climate of the earth, which have been causing
so much hysteria in recent years. The result has been that the European
Union proposes to waste over a trillion
euros in an absurd war against the climate! One is reminded of Xerxes silly
attempt to control the ocean by attacking it with a whip during his failed
attempt to conquer Greece. Even now, an economic depression seems to be
settling on us, caused in large part by a blind trust in this overwhelming
flood of irrelevant numbers. People are starving to death due to the fact
that food is being burned on a massive scale, the theory being that this
will aid humanity in its fight against the air!
But I digress...
Gauss' lasting fame is based upon his epochal Disquisitiones
Arithmeticae, surely one of the greatest single works of pure
mathematics. At Göttingen, Gauss was the professor for astronomy, not
mathematics. But he soon lost interest in astronomy and instead became
interested in the problems of surveying the land of Hannover. After that,
following a visit to Alexander von Humbolt in Berlin, he became interested
in the problems of measuring the magnetic field of the earth. This led to
the construction of experiments with electricity and magnetism. Only later,
ten years after Gauss died, did Maxwell publish the equations which are
considered to be the basis of the classical theory of electromagnetism.
It seems that Gauss' true ambition was to emulate Issac
Newton. Thus, in the same way that Newton was able to revolutionize our view
of the world with his theory of gravity, Gauss hoped to accomplish something
similar by understanding electricity and magnetism. Yet these hopes were
disappointed. Why? In a letter to Wilhelm Olbers in 1845, Gauss wrote "I
would doubtless have published my researches long ago were it not that, at
the time I gave them up, I had failed to find what I regarded as the
keystone; namely, the derivation of the additional forces - to be added to
the interaction of electrical charges at rest, when they are both in motion
- from an action which is propagated not instantaneously but in time, as is
the case with light".
A hundred years later, Feynman was able to carry through
Gauss' program, providing us with an "action at a distance" theory which, in
principle, is freed from the constraints of the imaginary, ethereal,
"space-time" manifold which the conventional theory deems necessary in order
to provide a geometric framework for physics. This enabled Feynman to
construct a viable theory of quantum electrodynamics, for which he received
the Nobel prize in 1965.
Feynman's action at a distance theory only makes sense
within the framework of relativity, with the various distortions of space
and time which that involves. Of course, even into the 1920s, many
physicists refused to accept Einstein's relativity theory. I like to think
that perhaps the great Carl Friedrich Gauss might have been able to carry
through his program in the 1830s, finding a theory of electromagnetism
similar to that of Feynman, and thus being confronted with the theory of
relativity. However, realizing that the unthinking world around him would
simply ignore, or at most ridicule such strange ideas, he kept them to
Hubert Mania's book is mainly concerned with the - often
difficult - emotional side of Gauss, as can be inferred from his many
letters to various correspondents. Particularly brutal was his treatment of
the son of his student friend, Wolfgang Bolyai. It is interesting to imagine
what the situation would have been if Gauss had reached maturity as a
mathematician in the 1930s, rather than in the 1830s. Perhaps then the young
Feynman would have been sent an abrupt letter, informing him that the great
Professor Gauss had, of course, already known about this 30 years ago, yet
had not bothered to publish it. Indeed, such arrogance is not unknown in
present day academic life!
Miles Franklin's first book, My
Brilliant Carrier, is a classic. Well worth reading! She grew up at
Homestead in the 1880s, well before the city of Canberra was founded.
But for people in Canberra, the names of the places in this book are very
familiar. "Up The Country" refers to the high country west and south of
present-day Canberra, as opposed to going "down to Sydney". Miles Franklin
writes of the "Maneroo", which would be the country between the Brindabellas
and the coastal mountains. These days, it is spelled "Monaro".
some people define the Monaro as extending even north of Canberra towards
Goulburn. But I had always thought of it as being that stretch of country
down south, between Cooma and Nimmitabel - almost treeless grassland with
deep erosion - which you drive through on the way to the South Coast.
Turning the other way at Cooma takes you through Jindabyne and on to the
Snowy Mountains for skiing, or walking tours. The book also takes us west,
through Gundagai, and even as far as The Gap, which is beyond Wagga Wagga.
Up The Country was first published in 1928, and it
describes the pioneering families of the district. It is written in the
style of a 19th century romantic novel, describing the romances of the young
people. The hero is Bert Poole who is the idol all young maidens, and
everyone else as well. He is an accomplished bushman, yet a perfect
gentleman, despite the fact that he does not belong to the snobby
"squattocracy" of the early Australian Bush. Amongst his many admirers is
the beautiful Emily Mazere, whose brother has already married Bert's sister.
Yet Bert seems to be in love with Emily's married sister Rachael, and so he
is oblivious to the advances of all the other young maidens. In the end, his
sister tells him of Emily's love; this is news to him, despite the fact that
it is the talk of the district; they become engaged; Bert sets about
building a new home for Emily; but tragedy strikes! On a swimming
expedition, Emily drowns in the river. This seems to be an imaginary
tributary to the Murrumbidgee.
So the book ends in tragedy, and Bert is sad, but strangely unmoved.
It took me a while to get into this book, but in the end
the characters did begin to take on a life of their own. Miles Franklin
wrote it under the pseudonym of "Brent of Bin Bin". There seems to be a
whole series of these Brent of Bin Bin books, and I almost feel like reading
more of them in order to find out what happens to Bert and the other
characters. However, looking at Amazon, it appears that most are no longer
in print. I suppose the best way to continue with the story would be to
borrow the books from a library in Australia. (This one was in our library
here in Bielefeld. There are a few more books of Miles Franklin there, but
certainly not the complete Brent of Bin Bin series.)
The fact that Emily drowns is not something to be taken
lightly! I knew one person whose son drowned in the Murrumbidgee, a real
life tragedy. And I myself had an experience which was rather sobering. A
group of us decided to have a go at scuba diving, and so we rented diving
gear and went down to the coast to dive around the rocks. But the ocean
water was rather too turbulent, giving poor visibility, so the whole
thing was somewhat of a disappointment. I think that was on a Saturday, and
we had to return the gear on Monday. So two of us decided to just go out to
the Murrumbidgee, with our wet-suits to protect ourselves from the rocks,
and let ourselves be carried downstream, floating on air mattresses,
enjoying the sun and the open air.
The Murrumbidgee, after a dry summer, is only a small
stream near Canberra. Further down, particularly at Gundagai, it can flood
dramatically. In fact the book starts off with a description of the great
flood of 1852. The Hume Highway - the main road from Sydney to Melbourne -
used to pass over a long wooden
bridge which was elevated above a bone-dry, dusty plain. Only at the
end, you crossed a very narrow, almost stagnant river. I have often driven
across that bridge and thought it was ridiculous. But at least during the
occasional flood - assuming it was not so intense as to wash the bridge away
- the traveler would still be afforded a passage.
Anyway, we were floating down the Murrumbidgee near
Canberra, I was in front, and gradually the stream began to become confined
between sheer rock faces on either side. As the river narrowed, the flow
increased, making an escape from the situation impossible. Being carried up
to the narrowest point, I couldn't see the water flowing away from it.
Instead it was flowing smoothly over the edge, out into space. How high was
the waterfall? It could have been 50 feet or more! No time to get overly
worried. Upending over the edge, I just dropped down gracefully three or
four feet, and the river flowed peacefully along as before. My companion did
get into a panic, seeing me disappear into nothingness. I have often
wondered what would have happened if we were not so lucky.
So the moral of the story is: be careful with rivers!
Clicking around the internet, I came across an
interview with Russ Baker and found it to be so interesting that I
immediately ordered this book via Amazon. It is concerned with the "Bush
Dynasty", that festering pot of evil which we had hoped had now been stamped
out and replaced by a new, more virtuous regime. The hope still remains.
However this book shows that the source of that evil runs much deeper, and
it is much more powerful than we had thought.
Russ Baker avoids unsubstantiated speculation. The book
is a compendium of the many people he has himself interviewed, together with
great numbers of further, more or less obscure facts he has gleaned from
books, newspaper articles, and so forth, from the last 40 or 50 years of
American political life. The list of these sources at the back of the book
comprises 59 pages of fine print! The book itself, before the Notes section,
is 498 pages long. I found it to be a difficult and tiring book to read,
since the list of characters seems endless, and their relationships to one
another - the whole Spiders Web of Bush Evil - is almost impossible to keep
track of. Baker says that his policy was only to interview people who were
prepared to speak to him without first having to check back with the Bushes.
Although George W. Bush has presided over the true
gutting (torture, assassination, mass murder...) of what we had always
believed were the American values, the main part of the book is concerned
with his father. The reason for this is that many of the witnesses to the
events of the 1960s and 70s are now elderly people, who for one reason or
another have overcome their fear, or their expectations, of the Bush family.
In contrast to this, the part of the book dealing with the presidency of
George W. Bush has no particularly new revelations. In a way, we are not
really missing much from this. The horrors are apparent for all to see.
Perhaps the central mystery for future generations will be to discover the
role of the Bushes in the events of the World Trade Center in 2001, which
provided the excuse for all that followed.
After reading Machiavelli's The Prince, it seemed to me
that much of what he wrote was not relevant to the situation of today's
United States of America. Still, George W. Bush was well aware of
Machiavelli's teachings. The author interviewed Mickey Herskowitz who, in
1999, was engaged by the Bushes to ghost-write an autobiography of "W." - as
he was called. (His father was called "Poppy".) The Bushes got rid of
Herskowitz after they began to feel that he was becoming too curious. In any
case, according to Herskowitz, "W." told him in 1999 - before he became
president - that he was definitely going to start a war with Iraq, the
reason being that according to his way of thinking, the great
presidents were all wartime
presidents. The best example of creating "greatness" was Margaret Thatcher,
with her wonderful little Falklands War. The best counter-example was Jimmy Carter, who failed to invade
Iran to get the hostages (or at least have them killed).
Perhaps all of this is, indeed, true. Friedrick the Great
of Prussia is called "Great" owing to the fact that he invaded Saxony, thus
starting the seven years war and so killing lots of people. But perhaps
"greatness" flows from the fact that Prussia was fighting against superior
forces in that war. And for aficionados of the baroque flute, Friedrick did
have the saving grace of being interested in music. Even Thatcher could be
said to have displayed an element of daring in sending the small, rather
pathetic remnant of the once mighty British Navy halfway across the world in
order to fight a despotic regime on its home turf. But all of that was
missing in "W"'s effort to become a wartime "hero". Everybody knows that
Saddam himself was, for 40 years, a creation of "Poppy"'s own CIA. And the
replacement of the surrogate Saddam regime with the original version, with
all its torture and brutality, was hardly heroic! "W"'s efforts to wrap
himself in military costumes during his time as president became even more
absurd as it gradually came out that he was a deserter of the comfortable
"Champagne Unit" of the Texas National Guard, during a time when not so
privileged people were forced against their will to fight in the Vietnam
Undoubtedly this failure of "W" has led to the downfall -
or at least the falling from grace - of the Bushes. I hardly expect that we
will hear much of them in the future. But this is not to say that the forces
which put them in the White House do not still exist! I am sure Obama is
himself under much pressure. Perhaps he would do well to appoint Russ Baker
to be one of his closest advisors.
The story of the Bushes in politics goes back a hundred
years or more. They were serving various banking interests on Wall Street,
which were just as corrupt as those of today. Also the Texas oil interests.
The Bushes, Harrimans, Dulleses, and various other families formed a nest of
corruption which also became interested in establishing clandestine
operations within government. During the Nazi era, they supported Hitler
financially. But the time period principally dealt with in the book is that
of "Poppy"'s achievements. That is to say, the 1950s through to the 1980s.
Of course the defining event of this period was the
Kennedy assassination. Baker does not attempt to deal with the details of
all the theories of how the assassination was actually executed. For
example, somebody named Tim Rutten, who reviewed the book for the Los
Angeles Times, writes
it's necessary to declare a personal bias. I regard the belief that Lee
Harvey Oswald acted alone as an important indicium of mental health."
Obviously this Tim Rutten, and other like-minded people, should keep clear
of the book - and of my small writings here - in order to avoid insanity!
The "indicium" he refers to must be something akin to religious belief. But
leaving religion aside, it is interesting to learn of the verified
activities of "Poppy" and his various friends on November 22, 1963 in
Dallas. And it is amusing to read that "Poppy" must be one of the few people
to "not remember" where he was on that day, when learning of Kennedy's
death. (I remember very well how all of us at Southern Regional High School
in Manahawkin New Jersey were called to the gym, and we were shocked and
speechless after the Principal of the school told us the news. Then we were
all immediately sent home.)
The cast of shady characters, CIA and FBI spooks, and the
entangled web of connections linking them to "Poppy" and Dallas on that
fatal day takes hundreds of pages to describe. It may all be a vast
coincidence. In any case it adds up to an interesting murder mystery.
The story doesn't stop with "Poppy" in Dallas. The story
of Richard Nixon is equally interesting. He is commonly portrayed as a
sleazy, dishonest character, responsible for Vietnam, and especially for
that evil Watergate business.
But what if everything we had thought about Nixon was
wrong? After all, he didn't start
the Vietnam war! In the end, he got us out of it. He established the
Environmental Protection Agency and various other things which today would
be considered "green". He established contact with China, and dialog with
the Soviet Union. But he had big problems!
(i) He was not rich, so he could not compete with the
Kennedys, Bushes, Rockefellers, and all those other moneyed families. In
fact, he was wholly dependent on Prescot Bush for his political carrier. Here is a
beautiful photo, giving a perfect illustration of their relationship (at the
time Nixon was Vice President of the U.S.!)
(ii) He had few friends he could trust. Suspecting the
danger of his powerful sponsors when he became president in 1968, he tried
to obtain the secret files of the CIA relating to the Kennedy assassination.
(One of Kennedy's mistakes was to fire Alan Dulles, who was the head of the
CIA at the time.) Of course he was denied the files, and he was told in no
uncertain terms that it was not his place to ask such questions!
(iii) He imagined that as President of the U.S.A. he
could distance himself somewhat from the powerful forces which ran the
country. For example, he hinted that he might not veto the elimination of
the Oil Depletion Allowance, which was a basis for the bloated riches of the
Texas oil oligarchs.
So, all in all, there were many reasons to get rid of
him. The same was true of Jimmy Carter a few years later. The story of how
it was done - how Nixon was framed - is something which Obama, and future
presidents, should study carefully.
But in the end we should look at these things
realistically. The fact that Russ Baker was able to research this book and
have it openly published shows that there is still a greater degree of
freedom in the U.S.A. than in many other parts of the world. And despite
everything, "W" has retired to his pseudo "ranch", where he can do no more
harm. While the Constitution and the idea of Democracy may have been
rendered "quaint", perhaps these institutions could never be feasible in so
large and diverse a country as the U.S.A. After all, the Roman Empire, with
all its corruption and intrigues, lasted for hundreds of years in a more or
less stable state (and its continuation in Byzantium lasted for many further
centuries). Could it be that the present situation of the U.S.A. corresponds
with the period of corruption in ancient Rome just before Caesar seized
power into his own hands to create a new kind of dynastic government? Or
could it be that Obama will really lead us into a better era?
Trek II, by Sonia and Alexandre Poussin
If the last book, Family of Secrets, is concerned with evil, then this book
is the absolute opposite. The Poussins are the true apotheoses of goodness!
This is the second of their books about their trek through Africa along the
East African Rift Valley, from South Africa to Egypt, and then on to
Jerusalem. I read the first book last year, describing the walk as far as
Mt. Kilimanjaro. So this is the continuation, through the desert of
northwest Kenya, then Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt, and finally Israel. Their
books do seem to now have been translated into English, and the Amazon link
Their descriptions of the people they meet, of how they
are helped at every stage, of their endurance and determination, are truly
wonderful. In particular their crossing of the desert south of Lake Turkana
without any assistance is something people in Kenya had thought to be nearly
Alexandre twice gets a bad - life threatening - case of
malaria. Instead of being pumped full of expensive modern drugs, he is given
an extract of
wormwood (that is, the active ingredient - together with alcohol - in
absinthe), which cures him each time in less than two days. In Somalia they
stay with a family whose son is wasting away with a chronic case of malaria.
He is on an aggressive course of drug treatment. But they give him some of
their wormwood, and he also recovers completely in a couple of days! Reading
in the internet of all the benefits of this ancient herb, we have decided to
plant some in our garden this summer. As the Poussins write, the WHO, under
pressure from the pharmaceutical industry which can make no money on it,
does not really want you to know about wormwood. But the WHO does describe
it in their Treatment
Guidelines for malaria.
The Poussins were especially motivated by the thought
that East Africa is considered to be the cradle of mankind. I had often
thought that it must have been very frightening for all those
australopithecuses, homo erectuses, and what have you, to spend the night
out under the stars in the open savanna, surrounded by hungry lions, hyenas,
and all those other dangerous animals, protected only by the light of the
campfire. After all, why should a lion be afraid of a little fire? This is
precisely the question the Poussin's faced for night after night! But the
answer is that you need more than a fire to protect you in the savanna. One
solution was, and is, to surround yourself with a dense barrier of thorn
branches. This is called a kraal,
But of course the Masai simply kill the lions with their spears. They told
the Poussins that any man who turns and runs from a lion, rather than facing
it, may as well simply give up and die, since he will be no longer be
accepted by the tribe.
In the end though, the most dangerous part of the walk
was in Ethiopia. After having survived lions, heat and thirst, malaria, and
all sorts of further tribulations, it was the children of Ethiopia which
nearly killed the Poussins! Walking through villages together, huge mobs of
children 10, 12, or 14 years old would surround them, beginning to laugh and
taunt. Then they started throwing stones and larger rocks, shouting horrible
things at them. A crowd of 100 or 200 children. At one point, Alexandre
fell, and the mob nearly overwhelmed him. But suddenly a woman opened the
door of her house and they were able to jump inside and hold the door closed
against the attack. Some older children climbed on the roof and threw large
rocks down into the house. What was the reason for this horrible phenomena
which they had to endure day after day in Ethiopia? Elsewhere in Africa,
people had always been helpful. Asking them to eat with them, to sleep in
their houses, or huts. Could it be put down to the effects of modern
tourism? But if so, then why weren't people in other countries equally
aggressive? They find no answer, and it brings them to tears, and despair.
Perhaps it has to do with the recent history of Ethiopia.
The period of "red
terror" under Mengistu in the 1970s was certainly horrible. And maybe
white people in general are associated with Mengistu's Russian advisors. But
even now - that is to say in 2003, when the Poussins were walking through
Ethiopia - whole groups of people are being forcibly resettled from one
place to another. After all, there was that terrible Eritrean war, and also
there is the huge number of refugees from Somalia. Thus there would be a
primitive breakdown in the normal human sense of order.
But to be fair, we should consider what the situation
would be if say, a very dark-skinned young married couple from the Congo, or
whatever, decided to have a great adventure and walk all the way from
Patagonia to Alaska. Or perhaps from Portugal all the way through to Eastern
Siberia. And doing this in the minimalist style of the Poussins, carrying
almost nothing, expecting every evening to be invited in to share a meal and
be offered a place to sleep with whomever happens to be met on the trek. How
far would they get in the Americas? And I wonder how far they would survive
East Germany, or the Baltic countries? The treatment the Poussins received
everywhere - except in rural Ethiopia - shows the superiority of the African
peoples, at least as far as open mindedness and tolerance is concerned!
In Addis Ababa, where they stayed for a few months, they
were able to live comfortably. And in the walk out of town they were even
accompanied by the great Haile Gebrselassie, who told them that he wished
that he could walk further with them. A young Ethiopian woman did accompany
them for some days, and this stopped the children from throwing stones. But
when she left, it resumed. Thankfully, they met a somewhat destitute man who
was also walking along their route to return to his home, and they offered
to help him in return for his company, and thus a certain degree of
protection from the children.
What a contrast it was for them to enter Sudan! There
they were treated with the greatest honor and respect. Everyone wanted to
entertain them as their guests. By the time they entered Egypt they had
become local celebrities, and they were escorted the entire length of Egypt
by a relay of police patrols. They were feted by the various local
governors. But all of this was tinged with religion, and with the ill
feelings which George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had aroused
amongst people everywhere.
The Poussins themselves seem to have been quite religious
(Christian, of course). And their goal of visiting Jerusalem was something
which people all along their trek could appreciate. But of course George W.
Bush also claims to be a religious person. Whatever his goal might have been
in invading Iraq, the result has been a sea change in the perception of the
USA in the eyes of the world. Whereas before his presidency, the USA was
almost universally considered to be a beacon of freedom, embodying a style
of life to be emulated, afterwards it has become reviled. If "terrorists"
are people who are violently opposed to what George W. Bush stood for, then
he has been vastly successful in creating a whole army of potential new
terrorists. Perhaps this was also part of the reason for the treatment the
Poussins experienced in Ethiopia. The children, and their elders, were
unable to appreciate the fact that they were French, not Americans.
Certainly this difference was the reason for their overwhelmingly hospitable
reception in Sudan and Egypt.
Finally, crossing the border into Israel, they were
struck with how clean and well kept everything was. They imagined that they
had suddenly stepped into the countryside around Chartres, in northern
France. Or perhaps parts of Switzerland. They have much sympathy for the
people of Israel, and everybody tells them of their hope for peace. But I am
afraid that the wars of the Middle East, which have even intensified in the
few years since the Poussin's trek, have only made such hopes more remote
James Welch was a native American, a member of the
tribe of the Black Foot people, living in Montana. This is an historical
novel which is concerned with the events leading up to the massacre
of over 200 Blackfeet on the Marias River in 1870 by the US
Armed Forces. It is all very sad and depressing. Some time ago I read
another book on this general theme called A
History of the Indians of the United States, by Angie Debo. I had
thought that it might discuss the great variety of native American (or -
to use the earlier, but now politically incorrect name which was founded
on Columbus' mistaken view of geography - namely "Indian") cultures. The
development of agriculture in the Americas in the 12,000 or more years of
human settlement before Columbus disrupted things. The various languages,
ways of life. But I am afraid that Debo's History
ignored all of that. Instead it was really A
History of the Conquest, Displacement, and Extermination of the Indians
of the United States by European Settlers. A very depressing
Perhaps there has never been a comparable example in
history of an existing population being so thoroughly displaced -
"ethnically cleansed" - to use the modern expression. The Statue of
Liberty in New York Harbor is a symbol of this, glorifying the removal of
native Americans from their land to make way for wave upon wave of
European immigration. But as we read recently in the book My
Ántonia, many of those settlers would really have much preferred
to stay in Europe. Some were criminals. Most of the rest were "economic
refugees", similar to the Latin Americans trying to cross the border from
Mexico, or the Africans crossing the Mediterranean to Europe today. The
difference is that back in the days when the Statue of Liberty was
erected, such economic refugees were welcomed.
And so, given the unpleasant history of the ethnic
cleansing of the native population of the United States, it would seem to
be extremely "politically incorrect" to say anything critical of this
book. The feeling is increased when reading in the Internet about the
exemplary life of the author, James Welch, or when looking at his photo.
But still, this is no reason to avoid indulging in an honest discussion of
the book. And anyway, surely it is distasteful to see the "politically
correct", "liberal" classes of the United States today pretending that
they are the moral saviors of the world - particularly in light of the
fact that their country is still involved in aggressive wars, halfway
around the globe, which have killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions
of native peoples! Therefore it seems to me to be better to use the
traditional, if geographically nonsensical, word "Indians" to describe the
aboriginal population of the United States.
Anyway, at first I was irritated by the formal
structure of the language in the book. Consider for example the following
sentence, describing the things which the Indian women had obtained at a
trading post in Montana.
women traded for cloth, beads, paints, white man's powder for cooking,
kettles and pans, earrings and brass studs to decorate belts and
So what is the problem with this sentence?
Here, and throughout the book, the pretense is that James Welch is
thinking in terms of the tribal language of the Black Foot people, and he
is translating the text from that language into English. He has
successfully translated such things as cloth, beads, kettles, belts,
saddles, and so forth. But what is this "white man's powder for cooking"?
I suspect he is referring to the substance whose English name is "flour".
Didn't James Welch have a dictionary which included the
word flour when he was writing the book? Or is this something entirely
different? Namely the attempt to express through language the idea that
American Indians are different, better, than the descendants of all those
European settlers who ruined the original harmony of things in the land
which is now the United States. Thus, calling flour "white man's powder
for cooking", expresses the idea that it is something corrupt. It is not
the natural, full-grain flour which one obtains by grinding the grains
between two stones out in the clear light of day. Rather it is an
artificial, industrial product from which the goodness, the original life
has been removed, leaving a bland, lifeless substance which leads to
obesity and sickness.
Freed of all these ideas of political correctness, the
fate of the Indians and the other oppressed peoples of the world, and what
have you, I can appreciate the thought which leads to the designation of
flour as "white man's powder for cooking". In fact at this very moment,
between writing this little bit of nonsense here, I am in the process of
baking bread - or at least preparing it for baking. I also reject white
flour! We have a small, electrical mill for grinding grain, where the
grain is ground between two circular stones contained within the mill. We
use only full-corn grains which have been grown without artificial
poisons. In fact, in today's batch of bread, I have included a substantial
portion of amaranth,
which was a traditional food of the Indians of the Americas. This bread is
indescribably better than the bland, tasteless product produced by modern
But to continue on with the book, this business of
calling flour "white man's powder for cooking" is certainly not the only
example of such distortions of the English language. Almost every sentence
in the book has similar mis-translations. What emerges is a style of
language which we think of as being "Indian Language". Thus the Sun is not
just that. Rather it is the "Sun Chief". Winter becomes "Cold Maker". In
the English language, when we express the period of time measured by one
rotation of the Earth about its axis, we say "one day". But in this book,
the same unit of time is called "one sleep". And on and on it goes in this
artificially distorted language. Perhaps this is something which the
Indians of the Great Plains especially cultivated in order to express
their rejection of the language of the invading settlers.
Even the names of the people have funny English
translations. For example, the famous Ta-Tanka
I-Yotank of the Sioux tribe has had his elegant
name demeaned through translation into the rather ugly "Sitting Bull". At
least such earlier figures as Montezuma, or Hiawatha, have managed to
retain their original names in modern usage. But strangely enough, in the
book the white settlers, which I thought were traditionally called "Pale
Faces" in this Indian language, are given a non-English, tribal-sounding
name, namely the "Napikwans".
In the end, if one is prepared to simply accept this
artificial "Indian Language", the book turns out to be an absorbing
adventure novel. We get a feeling for what it must have been like to ride
for miles over the unobstructed prairie on a horse, hunting the "black
horns" (which, presumably, in standard English is "buffalos"). According
to the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition which I read, the book
is supposed to provide us with a true representation of the culture of the
Plains Indians. Perhaps it does. But to be quite honest, I was led to
question James Welch's qualifications for accomplishing this task.
Did he really speak the tribal language of the Black
Foot people, and are all of these expressions really true translations of
traditional concepts of those people? Also what did he really know about
the religious, or spiritual values of 150 years ago? After all, he was
many generations removed from that culture. So the book cannot be compared
to say, Achebe's description of the tribal life of the Ibo in Things
Fall Apart. After all, Achebe certainly spoke the language - thus
he had no need to resort to a distorted version of English - and he was
only a generation or two removed from tribal life.
Achebe gave us a very clear picture of the roles of
tradition, spirits, social structures, and so on. He gave me the feeling
that I could understand what life must have been like for the Ibo before
the advent of English colonization. In particular, many people in Achebe's
story were just as skeptical of Hocus Pocus - in all its forms - as I
imagine I am. Yet in James Welch's version, this magic, dreams, Earth
Spirit, becomes reality. Towards the end of the book, the hero, Fools
Crow, is transported into a dream world, which is also the real world. He
is presented with a kind of video screen on an animal skin, where the
video shows the tragic events which are to unfold in the immediate future.
In earlier parts of the book we meet talking ravens and wolverines,
guiding Fools Crow along on the path of life. All of this reminded me of a
Walt Disney cartoon. And that distracted me from this book, which was
otherwise a good read.
This book consists of three different stories which
are, on the face of it, only tenuously related to one another. The chapters
come in threes, cyclically, yet progressively, relating the events in each
of these three stories. The stories are as follows:
Anyway, in the end the third story encompasses in some way the first two
stories, and much more besides that. It is unclear if the game in the castle
can ever be won. And even if it can be won, it is unclear what advantage
that will bring. Will they then be "free"? whatever that means. In fact the
castle exists - in some sense - at the "End of the World". Everything has
run down. Somewhere underground is a vast room, or perhaps an entire level
of the Earth, filled with zombie-like people whose heads are stuck into
spherical enclosures. They are living in their own virtual worlds, which are
the worlds of people in past ages of the Earth. They get inside the minds of
people of the past and experience what those people experienced, yet without
being able to influence them - at least not very much. And so they live as
zombies for the rest of eternity. Perhaps this is a kind of purgatory.
Perhaps Steve was right after all; THEY
are watching. Namely all those zombies from the future. And certainly being
Sara would be a most interesting and exciting experience for such a zombie
to indulge in.
- A love story. Graham is an art student in London whose friend, Slater,
is apparently gay. Slater introduces Graham to a beautiful young woman,
Sara, and Graham is immediately enraptured with her beauty. Yet Sara
seems strangely distant. Graham thinks constantly about Sara and is
overwhelmed with joy each time she agrees to meet him. She never invites
him in to see her place. Often she is late, or forgets appointed
meetings with Graham. But he is overjoyed when she does agree to see
him. He is only allowed an occasional chaste kiss. This is perhaps the
unhappy situation which many naïve young men in the real world get
themselves into. Why is the beloved object of desire so distant? What am
I doing wrong? In typical Iain Banks manner, the answer to this question
is revealed in all its brutal clarity towards the end of the book!
- The story of Steven, a mentally unstable man, suffering from strange
delusions. When speaking with other people, he often gets hot and
flustered. He knows that the reason for this is that THEY
are beaming him with their secret microwave weapons. When walking along
the street, he knows that THEY
have installed laser beams in the axles of the cars passing by, which
burn his legs. This can only be mitigated by holding ones breath, or
climbing on walls above the level of the axles. The beams are blocked by
parked cars. Thus he must hold his breath between parked cars. In his
small room he has a huge collection of science fiction paperbacks. He
thinks that perhaps the key to his discovering the identity of THEM might be found somewhere in one of these fantasy
stories. In the end, he causes an accident which brings with it an
upheaval in the lives of Sara and Slater, of the first story.
- The third story is a kind of science fiction fantasy. Two old people,
a man and a woman, find themselves in a strange castle of glass and
slate. They must play board games whose rules are unknown to them, with
the hope that eventually, by chance, a game will have been played which
does obey the rules. This is a kind of prison which they are in. If,
after thousands of days of playing, they succeed in one of these games,
then they are allowed one possible answer to the following riddle. Question: What happens when an
unstoppable force meets an immovable object? They give wrong answers.
For example, very sensibly, they propose the answer: The question is
meaningless since neither unstoppable forces nor immovable objects
exist. But this answer is wrong. In fact, at the end of Steven's story,
when he is grubbing in the dirt in the garden of the insane asylum where
he has ended up, do we learn the answer to the riddle. It is apparently
the case that matchboxes in England have such riddles printed on them,
together with the answer, so that when striking a match, people can
contemplate such things. According to the thrown-away matchbox which
Steven finds on the ground at the insane asylum, the answer is - Answer: The unstoppable force
stops, the immovable object moves. This seems to me to be a very
on Glass was an obscure, mysterious collection of thoughts, this
book is just the opposite. It is a simple, if involved story. The narrator
is Prentice McHoan. A Scottish university student in the early 1990s, at the
time the book was first published. (Thus Iain Banks takes the opportunity to
describe his dismay at the first Gulf War in this book. The revulsion and
disgust we have experienced during the second Bush administration came
later.) In various episodes, jumping back and forth in time, all of the
various members of Prentice's Scottish family - including lots of uncles and
aunts, and school friends as well - are described. The family lives in a
village alongside a Loch somewhere in Argyll. Of particular importance is
Uncle Fergus, who is the Lord of a Castle overlooking the countryside.
These episodes paint an uncomfortable picture of
contemporary life in the Scottish Highlands. The characters are continuously
in the process of becoming dead drunk on whiskey. Then, during the few
intervals of sobriety, they suffer dreadfully with their hangovers. The
whiskey is often spiced up with "J's", which I suppose is an abbreviation
for the slang expression "Joints"; that is to say, cannabis cigarettes.
Additional spice is added via cocaine. Despite all of this, the characters
appear to live in a state of extreme financial comfort. Perhaps this
is due to the post-modern money manipulations of the "new economy" which
were all the rage in those days. There does actually appear to be a real
(not just virtual) source of wealth-creation in the story, namely a glass
factory owned by Uncle Fergus. Nevertheless, from the description in the
book, we suspect that it will soon go into receivership. The need for strong
drink is often due to feelings of sexual frustration. The various and
changing couplings between the many characters in the book are a central
theme. And throughout the many episodes, we see that the female characters
are the ones most likely to change their partners at the slightest whim.
All of this does have some interest. It is a depiction of
the contemporary social structures of a typical Land of the North. I can
imagine that people in northern Scandinavia, or Siberia, or Alaska, suffer
from the same ills. The lack of winter sunlight must lead to depression,
frustration. And when summer comes, with its endlessly long days, this
frustration explodes in outbursts of excess. Religious excess plays a role
in the book as well. Even - seemingly illogically - Prentice's father's
atheism is pursued with religious fervor. In earlier times, the People of
the North were considered to be poor, backward peoples. Yet in this
post-modern, post-industrial age, their excesses - combined with their oil
wealth - express the spirit of the times. Thus they have been able to gorge
themselves on all of the luxuries which are produced by the more moderate
peoples whose industries still exist.
The book was rather long. 500 pages. And after reading
150 or 200 of them, I had the feeling that it was enough. I had taken out
another book from the library, but upon starting it, I realized that I had
already read it years ago. And anyway, despite the subject matter of this
book, Iain Banks can make an amusing story out of such unpromising material
as this. So I just read a few pages now and then when getting into the mood
over the last week or two. It picked up very nicely over the last 150 pages,
becoming a fascinating murder mystery. And at the end, our hero, Prentice,
falls beautifully in love with the neglected Ashley.
by William Boyd
An unusual spy story. This really is a
"page-turner". I stayed up till long after midnight, completely absorbed in
the story. Very much to be recommended!
The story is of a mother and her daughter. The mother was
a spy - or perhaps more an agent - for England during the period 1939-41.
Her real name was Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian who escaped with her family
from the communist hordes, finally settling in Paris. She is recruited by
Lucas Romer, a suave English spook. After an adventuresome few months of
spooky training in Scotland, she joins Romer in Belgium where a long period
of relatively boring inactivity is punctuated by a sudden gunfight in a café
near the border with Germany. Eva saves herself by jumping out through the
lavatory window. Then Romer's little circle of spys is sent to America,
where they join a huge assembly of further British agents installed in the
Rockefeller Center in New York, desperately trying to place false
information in the American press with the purpose of luring the USA into
the war in Europe. Eva is sent on a secret mission to New Mexico to plant
further false information. But suddenly things turn nasty, and she is on the
run. After various changes of identity, escaping the unknown agents swarming
out to kill her, she settles in England under a false identity, marries and
has a daughter whose name is Ruth. She seems to have successfully hidden
herself behind a screen of anonymity.
In chapters alternating with Eva's wartime story, we
learn about Ruth, who is vaguely doing a Ph.D. in Oxford. But mostly
she is earning a comfortable amount of money teaching English to foreigners
who come to Oxford for a few months in order to become fluent in English,
mainly for business reasons. The time is 1976. Ruth has a five-year old son,
whose father is a hippy German history professor who has only procreated
this extra baby with Ruth as an interesting and amusing exercise. His
regular family is in Hamburg. Ruth wants nothing more to do with him. The
brother of the history professor suddenly turns up at Ruth's place, asking
for shelter. He seems to be hiding from the police. We suspect that he is a
member of the Baeder-Meinhof terrorist gang, using Ruth's place as a "safe
house". A rather sleazy German girlfriend turns up soon after, and also
settles into Ruth's small apartment.
To add to all these unsettling developments, Ruth's
mother begins giving her papers to read, showing that she is not the boring,
average English mother Ruth had always known, but rather she is a woman with
a strange history. At first, Ruth thinks it is all a ridiculous invention, a
joke. Or perhaps her mother is becoming demented in her advancing years. The
mother seems to spend lots of time carefully scanning the woods with
binoculars. She pretends to need a wheelchair, although there is nothing
wrong with her.
The reason she is telling Ruth all her secrets is that
she wants to use Ruth in order to approach her wartime mentor, Lucas Romer,
who has now become "Lord Mansfield", the secretive gentleman who has reached
the highest echelons of British spookdom. He lives in a comfortable house in
the inner sanctuaries of the British Establishment in Knightsbridge, London.
In the end, Eva and Ruth confront Lucas Romer to find out the ultimate
secrets. A great book!
This book has a strong formal resemblance to Restless, the book I read before.
Again, the story takes place in two different times. The main story takes
place in a former time, and the later story is narrated 30 years later by
the daughter which had been procreated in one of the various couplings of
the characters in the earlier story. In each case, the daughter helps to
resolve the questions which the respective parent's adventures have left
The Blue Afternoon
is set a bit further back in comparison with Restless,
namely the main story takes place in 1903 in Manila, and the secondary story
takes place in Los Angeles - and then Lisbon - in 1936. This time, the
daughter is named Kay Fischer. She is a potentially successful architect in
the modern Bauhaus style. Yet her partner seems to have escaped from a
Raymond Chandler novel. In fact, the whole style of the 1936 story is such
that we expect Kay to have a look in the L.A. telephone book under "Private
Eyes", or, to use the appellation favored by Chandler, "Private Dicks", and
find Phillip Marlow as being a good candidate to investigate things.
Instead, she directly confronts the shady character who has been following
her, and finds that it is somebody named Salvador Carriscant. He claims to
be her father.
Carriscant has a long story to tell. He grew up in the
Philippines and was a medical doctor in Manila. In fact he was a surgeon. We
have lots of descriptions of the cutting up of people in various ways. I
suppose it is true that a good surgeon must have a great deal of tactile
skill. Carriscant's partner - or rather adversary - is the old Dr Cruz, a
representative of the traditional school of medicine. His operating theater
is on the other side of the hospital. While Dr. Carriscant believes in the
modern notion of cleanliness and sterility, Dr. Cruz believes that disease
is borne through the air; thus there is no need to wash things. The walls
and floors are covered in grime. Not to mention the operating table, and the
various knives and other instruments which cut through the flesh of one
patient after the other, transferring the blood and gore along at each
stage. Dr. Cruz's unwashed attire is also caked with the dried remnants of
countless operations. Needless to say, the life expectancies of Dr.
Carriscant's patients are generally greater than those of Dr. Cruz.
Nevertheless, Dr. Cruz has tradition on his side. Also he is a peninsularo,
which, as is explained in the book, was an inhabitant of the Philippines who
was born in Spain, and thus he was of more noble stock than the insulares
who were not born in Spain. Dr. Carriscant himself was even further down in
the social hierarchy, owing to the fact that he was not of pure-bred Spanish
stock. In fact his father was Scottish and his mother was half Spanish and
half native Philippine. Thus, technically, he was a mestizo,
since he had an admixture of indio
Yet all these nuances of Spanish breeding had become
passé, owing to the fact that the U.S.A. had conquered the Philippines as
part of the Spanish-American war. The Philipinos, especially the mestizos
and the indios, at first
celebrated their liberation from Spanish colonialism. What a shock it was
for them to realize that the U.S.A. had no intention of liberating them!
Instead, they became an American colony. By 1903, at least according to the
book, the Philippines had been successfully subjugated at the cost of about
4,500 American lives, and upwards of 200,000 Philippine dead. Unlike
present-day Iraq, where the numbers - particularly those of the dead natives
- have progressed further than this, a state of enforced peace had been
Carriscant is unhappily married to Annaliese, the
daughter of a German family which returns to Germany, leaving her alone in
her marriage in this torrid climate. Seeking relief, Carriscant finds
Delphine, the American wife of Colonel Sieverance. Carriscant becomes
enamored with Delphine's Gibson
Girl style of dress. And as with Carriscant, Delphine is unhappy in
her marriage with Colonel Sieverance. All of this leads where we suspect it
must, and the story is interspersed with mysterious murders which Inspector
Paton Bobby of the American colonial police investigates with the help of
Carriscant, reluctantly giving help on the medical side.
William Boyd creates a wonderful atmosphere here, giving
us the feeling of what it must have been like to live in Manila back in
1903. The story is filled with a great wealth of geographic, linguistic, and
social detail. He must have lived for some time in the Philippines,
researching the book, keeping copious notes. So this was again a book which
kept me up into the small hours of the morning.
Destiny of Nathalie X, by William Boyd
A short book of short stories. The story whose
title is the title of the book is about a few French people making a crazy
avant-garde film. And the other stories describe further situations which
one can imagine people getting themselves into. It was an interesting
collection. Very enjoyable to read.
This is a novel about World War 1 in East Africa. I
had always thought that those colonial types in Africa at the beginning of
the last century were just putting all their energies into keeping down the
natives, while trying to make as much money as possible. Therefore I would
have imagined that they would have ignored the war; at most traveling back
to Europe in the hope of being able to kill people there
in order to gratify their egos, and perhaps to reap some sort of military
But I suppose William Boyd has researched this book to a
sufficient extent to give us a good picture of the action which did actually
take place between British East Africa (now Kenya) and German East Africa
(which became Tanganyika, and which then became Tanzania when the British
were finally kicked out of East Africa in the 1960s). The relevant Wikipedia
article is here.
What were the causes of World War 1? Here
is another article, which tries to come to grips with this problem. As in
the 1990s, there were disturbances in Bosnia. They were quelled by NATO,
dropping lots of bombs, depleted uranium, and what have you, onto the people
there. Russia, the traditional protector of the Serbs, was in no position to
protest. But the situation in 1914 was really quite different from this.
Austria-Hungary was a large, multi-cultural country,
unifying diverse peoples and languages. Perhaps it could be compared with
present-day India, or China. The result of World War 1 - besides the murder
of around 20 million people - was the breakup of Austria-Hungary into a
collection of smaller, unruly countries. Then of course the terms of the
Versailles treaty led directly into World War 2, and the murder of a further
50 millions. A further result was that the small countries of the earlier
Austria-Hungary suffered under many years of communist oppression, just now
emerging from the darkness of the last century. And finally, the British
Empire was extended somewhat by the acquisition of a few German colonies
here and there in the world.
This book mentions another possible cause of World War 1.
Namely France was committed to an alliance with Russia, owing to the fact
that the bankers of France had lent Russia huge amounts of money, and so
France had an interest in getting the money back. (This reminds us of the
present absurd situation, where the bankers have achieved what must be the
most stupendous scam in the history of the world, with the so-called
"bail-out" - as if the world was a small rowboat where the common people
tend to the oars and the bailing buckets, while the fat bankers depress the
boat so far down into the water that the water slops increasingly over the
But beyond this, European imperialism - together with a
level of jingoistic nationalism which is difficult to imagine in the modern
world - certainly played a role in causing World War 1 .
The story in this book follows a number of different
characters through all of this chaos and unpleasantness. William Boyd, being
English, is particularly keen to show how disagreeable English society was
in those days. The main story is of a wealthy family in England, headed by
an eccentric, geriatric ex-military type who continuously startles and
dominates things with sudden aggressive shouts and insults. The two sons
suffering under this regime get sucked into the military, one quickly, the
other only after an unsettling affair with the wife of the first brother.
And then there are a number of more or less eccentric colonial characters in
the book as well. Boyd brings all of them to life, so that the book is an
absorbing read. I can well imagine that World War 1 really was like this for
many people back in those days.
The title of the book, which suggests that the war in
East Africa might have been nothing more than a fun adventure, actually is a
quote from a nasty little letter which a real-life character named Frances
Harold Burgess wrote on the 10th of October, 1914, in Nairobi, to his
sister, Mrs. Arthur Lamont in England, and which is quoted in full at the
beginning of the book.
On the Yankee Station, by William Boyd
Another book of short stories. One of the stories
is called "Bizarre Situations". I suppose the whole book could also be
called this. The stories deal with the weaknesses of ordinary people.
The story which gives the title of the book "On the
Yankee Station" is concerned with an aircraft carrier sailing off the coast
of Vietnam. The narrator is a mechanic assigned to a particular airplane,
whose pilot hates and torments the mechanic, who is a simple man from a
broken family. Everybody has always hated and tormented him. The horrible
pilot loves the feeling of dropping napalm on the Vietnamese. For him, the
orange flame of a napalm explosion is like a beautiful rose in the jungle.
After the pilot's abuse of the mechanic reaches a climax of torment, the
mechanic is given a week's "rest" in Saigon, after which he resolves to get
his revenge. This involves sticking a beer can stuffed with sand and
rubber-based glue into the steam catapult of the aircraft carrier, just as
the hated pilot is to take off. So the horrible plane, stuffed with its
repulsive load of napalm, is catapulted downwards into the depths of the
ocean where the napalm burns even under water.
This story prompted me to spend a half hour clicking
through the internet, trying to understand how these steam catapults work,
and so convince myself of the plausibility of the story. I've found out that
English and Russian aircraft carriers do not use catapults at all, rather
they have a "ski-jump" technique for launching airplanes. And the newest
American aircraft carriers use an electromagnetic linear accelerator as a
catapult, which surely is a more efficient solution, rather than steam.
In another story, Boyd imagines what it is like to be one
of those people suffering from epilepsy, where the nerves connecting the two
hemispheres of the brain are separated, thus effectively leaving the victim
with two separate brains. These two brains are often unaware of what the
other one has done, or what it is thinking. But unfortunately Boyd makes the
elementary mistake here of saying that the left hemisphere controls the left
side of the body, and the right the right. But as everybody knows, in fact
the nerves cross-over, so that the right hemisphere controls the left side
of the body, and vice versa.
And then there is the story of a boys boarding school in
England, where the boys are totally deprived of all contact with girls.
Except that each year they are allowed to have an execrable joint production
of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with the girls in the girls boarding
school in the town. The contrast between the ridiculous expectations of the
boys during this awkward, fleeting interaction, and the pathetic reality
makes for an amusing story.
In 1915, the author was giving a party in his
Manhattan apartment when a friend, the illustrator Franklin Booth, suggested
that they both cruise out to Indiana together in his 60 horsepower Pathfinder,
a cool car! So they set off the next day, driven by their chauffeur, who
also had a cool name - "Speed". Dreiser asks Speed if he is as swift as his
name indicates, and Speed answers, "I'm pretty swift"!
They drive through New Jersey, cruising out to the Water
Gap on the Delaware River, where they stay in an expensive hotel. ($5 a
night. In order to convert the values of 1915 American dollars into today's
devalued dollars, you must multiply everything by 20. Thus the hotel would
have cost $100 today.) During this first day of the tour, they even pass
through Passaic N.J., stopping to see the sights. My father was living in
Passaic at that time. He was just 16 years old.
It was Franklin's habit to return to his family in
Indiana each summer to work in his studio in peace, driving there along the
smooth roads in New York State, first through Buffalo, then along the shore
of Lake Erie, giving a swift passage to Indiana. But Theodore Dreiser had
not been back to the Indiana of his youth for many years, and he thought it
would be interesting to write a book about this trip, traveling off the
beaten path, through the mountains of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately though,
after getting as far as Wilkes-Barre, the roads petered out, and they ended
up heading north to Buffalo after all.
Despite Speed's name, and his impressive qualifications
which we gradually learn about (he was a sought-after test driver for the
big automobile manufacturers of the day), it is a leisurely drive, with
frequent stops to philosophize about one thing and another, and to allow
Franklin to sketch the various scenes which present themselves to the
interested motorist. How different this book is in comparison with Jack
Kerouac's On the Road! And what a
fine driver Speed is in comparison with that dreadful Neal Cassady. But
despite these differences, Dreiser enjoys observing all the characters they
meet on the road, especially the degenerate types like Cassady and Kerouac.
He is very much a free thinker. When they finally reach
Indiana, after establishing themselves with Franklin's family, they set off
on a short tour, visiting the places of Dreiser's childhood. He tells us in
many passages of the evils of the church. And of his overly shy contacts
with girls. Yet as a mature man, he has subscribed to the idea of "free
love", which was not only a philosophical, but also a practical matter back
in those days. Thus his marriage had long since dissolved, and we find him
admiring many female characters which are encountered on the trip. Not the
least, a young woman in Franklin's household in Indiana!
Nevertheless, I must say that when looking at the picture
of Dreiser in the link I have given above, and even more, when looking at
pictures of him as an older man, it doesn't look to me as if he is a
particularly happy man. Despite everything, my observation is that the
people I know who really seem to be genuinely happy are those who have been
peacefully married for many years. So I feel sorry for those who have not
been able to reach this sublime state of existence!
The book, which I found in the library, is a facsimile
printing of the original edition, which appeared in 1916. I have been
reading it, just a few pages at a time, over the past couple of weeks. I had
not thought much about Indiana before this. It seems to be more than just
flat, featureless farmland. There are lots of lakes, and hills as well. And
Indianapolis is the home of at least one kind of motor racing. As in the
original edition, there are a number of illustrations by Franklin Booth of
some of the scenes encountered during the trip.
The author was born in 1930 in Shanghai, and spent
his childhood years in an opulent style in the International Settlement,
being driven about by the family chauffeur, ordering the various house
servants (coolies) to do this and that at his every whim, being taken to the
polo club, the tennis club, and all those other institutions of British
colonial rule. His father was the manager of a British-owned textile
factory. He attended the Cathedral School in Shanghai. The large
International Settlement contained similarly opulent people of various
other European nationalities as well. In particular the French.
The Japanese invaded China in 1937, stopping at the
outskirts of Shanghai to let business proceed as normal. Only after the
attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 did they become active again,
occupying the International Settlement. Still, the Ballard family was able
to continue there till early 1943, when they were sent to the Lunghua
internment camp along with the other European inhabitants of Shanghai. Given
the circumstances, they seem to have been treated in a reasonably civilized
way. The author himself, as a young teenager, attended the camp school. He
later recalled that: "I have—I won't say happy—not unpleasant
memories of the camp. [...] I remember a lot of the casual brutality and
beatings-up that went on—but at the same we children were playing a hundred
and one games all the time!"
Judging from the story of the present book, at the end of
the war the food ran out for both the internees and their Japanese guards.
Thus the end of the war was a chaotic struggle for survival against
starvation and the ever-present danger of being overrun by the masses of
brutally hungry Chinese coolies in the surrounding countryside. For the
internees, the Japanese guards were providing them with a sanctuary from the
cruel world outside. While many of the Europeans died of starvation, the
fate of the Japanese was sealed. At the end of the war they were hunted down
and shot, or bayoneted, or worse. Death was certain! But the Ballard family
survived the war and returned to the opulent life of the International
It was out of this material that J.G. Ballard produced
this novel. The hero is named Jim Graham. (The J.G. at the beginning of
Ballards name stands for "James Graham".) Rather than being transported
gracefully from his Shanghai house to Lunghua, as happened in real life, the
Jim Graham of the story becomes separated from his parents, and then
experiences an absolutely dreadful sequence of episodes, bringing to mind
the descent into Dante's Inferno. I read the book before looking up the true
story of J.G. Ballard's life, and so I was totally shocked and depressed,
believing that this was near to a true account of his experiences as a 13
year old child.
On the other hand, I am sure that he did see very much
suffering. Death must have been everywhere. Countless Chinese must have
suffered unimaginably, perhaps surviving against all odds, as the Jim of
this story did. After the Jim of the story finally reaches the safety of
Lunghua towards the middle of the book, we find that Part 1 ends, and then
Part 2 begins. The book makes a jump from the 1942 of Part 1 to August 1945
in Part 2. This is starvation, death marches, killings, brutality. After
admiring the potent Mustang fighters strafing the nearby Lunghua airfield,
and the immense B-29s dropping their bombs, a sudden plenty arrives when the
Americans begin dropping food packages. In the book, these are grabbed by
gangs of cruel, lawless Europeans, killing everything that moves. But soon
some American warships arrive at the Shanghai docks to bring back law and
For the Chinese, this was no help. World War II ended
only for the way to be cleared for further waves of civil war. Cruelty,
brutality, starvation. Thankfully the Chinese have emerged from all of this,
and many people believe that now, in the 21st century, they will regain the
glory of their past.
I learned about this book by reading an obituary of J.G.
Ballard. I have read none of his other books, and from the descriptions, I
can't imagine that they would be the kind of books which would appeal to me.
In any case, he left Shanghai in 1946 with his mother and sister, sailing on
a ship to England and his life there.
A few weeks ago, looking rapidly back and forth at
something, my right eye suddenly experienced a flood of dark ribbons, which
gradually dissolved into a general milky opaqueness. An interesting
phenomenon. That evening, I was to have a musical get-together with a
certain ophthalmologist here who plays the cello, and so I told him about
this. It was a retinal detachment. He sent me to the hospital at Münster,
where I had a vitrectomy.
My eye was first filled with silicon oil, then with sulfer hexafluoride gas,
in order to stick the retina back into place. I was supposed to avoid rapid
eye movements until the gas became gradually replaced by natural fluids over
a period of two weeks. But now I am back to normal and can resume reading,
running and everything else, as before.
I am generally skeptical about medicine. But for such a
case as this, involving the repair of a mechanical failure of a very
delicate part of the organism, I am simply full of admiration for the
achievements of modern medicine and the skill of the surgeons in Münster! In
any case, the result of all this was that Heidi read the present book to me
(in a German translation).
Shackleton's voyage was certainly incredible. Or at least
his escape, and the saving of the lives of all his men was incredible. But
the circumstances leading to the whole debacle were incredibly stupid and
Shackleton was a man who was consumed by ambition. He was
born into the family of a rather unsuccessful English landowner in Ireland
in 1874. But in England, the fact that he was merely born in Ireland was a
stigma which he fought to overcome. In order to achieve fame and recognition
by the English upper classes, he decided to take part in the various "races"
of those days to be the first to the North- or South Poles of the Earth. Of
course, when you get there, there is nothing much to see, apart from white
snow and ice. I am full of admiration for my sister-in-law and particularly
for her husband, both of
whom flew up to the North Pole in their Cessna 185 in the summer of
2005. More recently, in 2006, after flying across the Atlantic from Brazil
to Dakar, then along the Niger and across the Sahara, they became trapped in
a tremendous sand storm. Visibility zero, hurricane force winds! But they
survived, making a perfect emergency landing at the airfield in Sirte in
Anyway, back 100 years ago, there were no airplanes to
speak of, and people were still sailing the oceans in square-rigged wooden
ships. Scott managed to kill himself trying to be the first to reach the
South Pole. But he was beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. I suppose
this was all about the glory of Norway, or of England, or whatever. All this
glorious nationalism lead directly into the killing fields of Flanders in
Shackleton had been part of the Nimrod expedition to
Antarctica in 1907-09, which made it up to the high glacial plateau which
covers the continent, but they did not achieve the South Pole. Since
Amundsen had done that in 1911, Shackleton decided to travel across
Antarctica, making a stopover at the South Pole, thus achieving for himself
a necessary degree of glory. This was the genesis of the Trans-Antarctic
In more recent times, various people have accomplished
such trans-Antarctic travels - but of course not in the name of
nationalistic nonsense, but rather for fun, or self-fulfillment , or
whatever. For example, Reinhold Messner and Arvid Fuchs did it a few years
ago, traveling on skis, pulled along by kites. Kite-surfing across
Antarctica. I suppose you are dropped off at one end by helicopter, then you
surf across Antarctica, and at the other end you are picked up by another
helicopter to be returned to civilization and the congratulations of your
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition set off in
August, 1914. There was a question about whether they should stay in order
to participate in the Great War. However the British War Office told them
that their War on the South Pole would be more important for establishing
the glory of England.
Shackleton's wooden sailing ship, the Endurance, first
went to South Georgia, and there they were told by the local whalers that
the pack-ice was particularly bad that season. Global warming enthusiasts
might believe that this problem has been mitigated in recent years, owing to
what they perceive as the devilish CO2 - which, of course, is the substance
which provides us with life on Earth. Unfortunately though, despite various
hysterical claims to the contrary sweeping across the front pages of the
newspapers of the world, and emphasized by dramatic ice-filled pictures on
the television news, the reality (as explained here)
is that the area covered by Antarctic pack-ice has been, on average,
gradually increasing during the last 30 years of satellite measurements.
So despite all warnings, Shackleton set off, full speed
ahead, in the style of Captain Smith of the Titanic, trying to reach the
coast of Antarctica, letting the Endurance become fully trapped in the ice.
After months of drifting through an Antarctic winter around the Weddell Sea,
the ice started moving, thus crushing the ship, as any sensible person could
obviously see must eventually happen. The crew then spent months camped on
the ice; they enjoyed incredible good luck to have the ice-floe they were
camped on drift to the edge of the pack-ice just before the next antarctic
winter froze everything again; they enjoyed even more incredibly good luck
to survive crushing by ice-floes agitated by the tremendous winds and seas
in the Drake Passage, and to survive those storms, and not be crushed
against the cliffs of Elephant Island; and finally the luck Shackleton and a
further five of the party experienced to survive the trip from Elephant
Island to South Georgia in the small life-boat, the James Caird, was so
incredible as to be almost unbelievable.
The trials the men were forced to endure during all this
were dreadful. Given the whole chain of lucky circumstance which led to
their survival, I can imagine that, realistically, they were all expecting
the closeness of death. Exhaustion, cold, hunger, thirst, must have led many
to welcome the release that death would have brought.
There is a small town on the North Coast of
Queensland, Australia, behind the Great Barrier Reef, which is named Bowen,
after Sir George Ferguson Bowen, the first Governor of Queensland. The town
was founded in 1861, and two years later, in 1863, a man appeared out of the
bush. He was James Morrill, a British sailor who had become
ship-wrecked 17 years before, when he was 22 years old. He was thus 39 years
old at the time of his reappearance into civilization. His ship had hit a
reef on the passage from Sydney to China. Most of the sailors died
immediately, but a small group saved themselves in a lifeboat, reaching the
coast of Australia. Of those, only Morrill survived. He lived with the local
tribes of Aborigines, and when European settlement reached this part of
Queensland, he then suddenly stepped out of the bush and back into
civilization. Surely this is an incredible story, and one which I would
enjoy reading about. What was it like with the Aborigines? What did they
tell him? What did he think about the whole thing?
As a matter of fact, he did publish a book, namely "17 Years Wandering among the Aboriginals".
And this book has recently been reprinted. It can be obtained via Amazon.com.
I haven't read it; the Amazon branch here in Germany doesn't list it in
their catalog. But also, it seems to me to be rather pricey, at $25, for
only 80 pages.
Anyway, it seems that when David Malouf wrote the present
book in 1993, he did not have Morrill's book at hand in order to write
something sensible. Instead he wrote a rather flowery and distorted bit of
nonsense, meant to arouse the sensibilities of the modern, politically
correct reader. Thus the early settlers at Bowen are Scottish bumpkins,
imagining that the appearance of Morrill is an apparition of evil which
might bring the evil of the "blacks" upon their heads.
"How cruel, ignorant and bigoted people were in the 19th century!"
In the story, Morrill seems to have appeared from nowhere in the streets of
London, parent-less, to be taken up by some sort of degenerate man. The
modern reader, attuned to the problems of child abuse, exclaims:
"My God! How terrible life in the 19th century must have been! Even
for small babies!"
Thrown onto a ship at the tender age of 7 or 8 or something (horrors! child
labor!), he gets sick on the ship. So the grown-up shipmates simply dump him
into the water to drown, and sail happily away.
"Good God! What unimaginable cruelness people had in the 19th
To clear the mind of such rubbish, any reader of this book might consider
reading something which was actually written by an Australian in the 19th
century, describing the true conditions of rural colonial life. For example
something by Henry Lawson, or Miles Franklin.
by Tim Winton
I have linked here to a review of the book in the
Guardian which really tells it all. At first the book is concerned with
surfing, but then it ends up being concerned with a very different subject.
The narrator is a young teen-aged boy living on the
south coast of Western Australia, near Perth. As was explained in the book
about Shackleton's adventure in 1916, the southern storms circle the
Southern Ocean relentlessly, producing waves reaching a mile from crest to
crest. When the occasional storm ventures somewhat more northward than
usual, these waves pound the south coast of Western Australia and the Great
Bruce Pike - or Pikelet, as he is called - is only 13 or
14 years old. He loves to swim, and to dive and hold his breath for as long
as possible. His friend Loonie joins him in this, and in fact, true to his
name, Loonie takes all sorts of crazy adventures to the extreme, especially
if they involve danger.
They start surfing and become the disciples of Sando, a
36 year old man who is an extreme surfer. Sando's real name is Bill
Sanderson. He has surfed all the great waves of the world, and ten years
before, the surfing magazines were full of his pictures and his exploits.
Somehow we suspect something strange in this relationship of a mature man
with two young teen-agers. Or is this only the hysteria of the present,
which distorts the reality of the life in an earlier time, namely the 1970s
of this story? Sando leads Pikelet and Loonie into extremely dangerous
adventures. They try to surf the sudden wave which rears up from the great
southern storm swells over an isolated rock, breaking down onto it, a mile
or more from the coastal cliffs.
It's all about taking crazy risks, having huge wipe-outs
and holding your breath while being beaten against the rocky reefs beneath
the surface. Pikelet is not quite as crazy as Loonie, and so Sando takes
Loonie away on mysterious trips to Indonesia, Mexico, and wherever else the
surf is, leaving Pikelet in the lurch. Perhaps they do secret things in
Thailand. Who knows? Drug smuggling?
While they are away, Pikelet hangs around Sando's house
and gets nearer to his wife, Eve. She was a "free-style" skier, but she also
had her great wipe-out, leaving her with a broken knee which was operated
upon sufficiently often to leave her a cripple for life. Eventually it turns
out that she gets her kicks becoming sexually aroused by means of enclosing
her head in a plastic bag in order to become nearly asphyxiated!
Well, all of this is beyond anything I can imagine. Is
this really a possible mode of actual human depravity? Or am I simply too
naive to have started this book in the first place. In any case Pikelet is
also disgusted, and he gives up surfing and practicing holding his breath,
and instead - through various phases of life which are only sketched in the
book - he passes through marriage, fatherhood, insane asylums, and finally
becomes a first-aid worker, helping people who ruin their lives through
similarly crazy behavior.
So the book was, for me, difficult to relate to.
But it has won various literary awards, and it has received glowing reviews.
I did once try to surf, but the surf board simply nosed
beneath the water, driven down by the wave into the sand where it caught,
thus stopping suddenly and giving my legs a nasty and painful jolt. That was
the end of that! And anyway, since I am nearsighted and cannot wear my
glasses when swimming, it is impossible for me to see the waves clearly as
they form some distance off. On the other hand, all along the coast of
Australia you see small groups of surfers sitting out on their boards
waiting for waves. They seem to wait for hours, and when they do find a
suitable wave, then they just surf it for 10 or 15 seconds at the most. The
whole thing seems to me to be an extremely boring waste of time. How much
more satisfying it is to have a good run along the beach, finished by an
invigorating jump into the surf!
As far as free-style skiing is concerned, I was very
surprised to see that it has become an Olympic sport. But of course the
whole Olympic business has become lost to commercialization, overwhelmed by
ridiculous and obscure pursuits which only demean the classic events. How
can this silly jumping around on a Buckelpiste,
as difficult and dangerous as it is, compare with the magnificence of the
spectacle of Hermann Meier charging down the Streif at Kitzbuhel!
Soon after birth, Rebecca, the narrator, was put
into a shoe box by her mother and dumped in the alleyway behind an Italian
restaurant. Luckily the Italians found her before some stray dog, or cat, or
rat did first. She was passed on to rather unsatisfactory foster parents
with whom she grew up. Thus she is a woman cut off from her biological past.
Adrift, without known relatives in the world.
She is living together with Joe, but in a platonic way,
as if they were brother and sister. Joe is writing a book about Stalin's
first wife, and her unpleasant, mysterious
death. Joe is also interested in writing a book about the time when
Stalin retreated to his dacha for a couple of weeks, closing himself in,
working out what to do after Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. He thinks of
this as a kind of fugue - of death. Joe does know who his relatives were,
but he tells Rebecca that the essential information is encoded in a persons
DNA; the rest, the relatives - the ancestors - are just a story, a narrative
which a person carries about with himself.
Thus, after 200 pages of the book we abruptly lurch into
Part 2, which is a story within a story which Joe has written for Rebecca.
Namely Will, a middle-aged "magnificent man in a flying machine" in World
War I, falls in love with Florence, a reluctant prostitute on the Western
Front. (If I were Rebecca, I would find such invented ancestors to be even
more unsatisfactory than the foster parents!) This Romance
of the Western Front continues on for an unmotivated 100 pages, out
to the end of the book. But it really has little to do with the main story.
I may be missing something here, but it seems to me that Helen Dunmore -
although she writes beautifully - rather lost the thread of things.
The real story is that suddenly Adam appeared, and he was
a true lover of Rebecca. Out of this union emerged a baby daughter, Ruby.
Rebecca puts all her life into Ruby so that she, at least, will have a true
history. But for some unexplained reason - perhaps the concentration of all
emotions on poor Ruby - Rebecca and Adam have no further children. Then,
when Ruby is six years old, she is fatally hit by a car. Since Rebecca's
whole life was Ruby, there is nothing left. She retreats to various dream
worlds, assisted by Mr. Damiano, whose business it is to create Dreamworlds
in various hotels and amusement parks.
Thinking about all of this, I think of people in earlier
times. For example Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife Anna
Magdalena, both of whom were also people of great emotions. Of their
13 children, 7 died at young ages, but two of the survivors became famous
composers on their own. What a wonderful, life-affirming story this is! A
family living for the joy of music. Mourning was a part of their lives, but
they didn't wallow in it. After all, regardless of how proud or magnificent
we imagine that we are, in the end we will all discover that life is finite.
In the present day, when almost all children survive
childhood due to modern medicine, and as a result the world is
over-populated with many billions of people, it is not sensible to have
large numbers of children. Nevertheless it is surely unnatural to
concentrate everything on a single child. If the story of this book is
heartbreaking, then the very real situation of many parents today who have a
single, dreadfully sick child which cold medical technology keeps alive must
be even more heartbreaking.
'THERE ARE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
BLACKMAIL, IN CASE IT COMES TAPPING AT YOUR DOOR'
So begins the blurb on the back of this paper-back which I borrowed from the
Well, I thought, how interesting! There was a recent case
of blackmail involving the woman who owns a large chunk of the BMW motor
Klatten. Germany's richest woman. Worth Billions! We ordinary people
were eager to hear about all the details. The secret Swiss lover whose
Italian co-conspirator filmed everything in some luxurious Alpine hotel.
Then they blackmailed her for millions. Such is the stuff of the news,
especially the kind perpetrated by Rupert Murdoch.
Yes. Mrs. Klatten's story would make a fascinating novel
about blackmail. After all, "poor" Mrs. Klatten only inherited the BMW
business. All the details of the past - WWII and all that - happened before
she was born. She is not responsible. And although she was born into great
riches, perhaps she is unhappy. Ordinary people, working through life, are
fascinated by this story of unearned wealth. Is it sympathy, or Schadenfreude, or mere curiosity?
Therefore I was puzzled with the way this novel began.
The heroine, Simone, does not seem to be a member of the endangered moneyed
class. On the contrary, Simone is a mother of two young boys. Her husband
Donald was an architect, but he is nearly bankrupt. Maybe his clients were
sub-prime people. Thus the family is saddled with huge debts. The family has
moved to an obscure coastal village in England where Simone has obtained a
job as the local magistrate. Donald mopes about the house all day, isolated,
jobless, occasionally shouting his frustration at Simone. Fully 70% of her
income goes into servicing the family debts. And even worse, in her job as
magistrate, she passes judgment on all the bankruptcy cases which come up in
the district. What a mess!
Therefore we ask ourselves: How can poor, overworked
Simone, whose life bears absolutely no relationship at all to the material
wealth of Mrs. Klatten, possibly be a victim of blackmail? How ridiculous!
At most, a blackmailer could make off with some of Simone's debts, thus
being even worse off financially than before.
It is only when getting well into the book that we find
that the true story really has nothing to do with blackmail. Or perhaps it
is a form of blackmail where the ransom demanded is Simone's love. Emotional
blackmail. The battle of the sexes. Not the thing that interested Mrs.
Twenty years ago, when Simone was an 18 year old English
schoolgirl, she took a summer job at a children's camp in New England. There
she got to know Michael, who sailed boats and built small boats in the
winters. He was a Vietnam veteran, together with his friend Calvin. Simone
fell in love with Michael. And Calvin was always there with a camera,
filming everything: the drinking, smoking of "grass", sexual explorations.
But at the end of the summer, Simone returns to England and studies law,
relegating Michael to the forgotten past.
Then suddenly, twenty years later, strange letters appear
from Michael, saying that he still loves Simone. Enclosed are some of those
old photos. What does he want? Is he threating to use them in order to ruin
Simone's career in the English judiciary?
Worse, he seems to have come to England, seeking
her out. He lurks around the lonely house in the dark. Is he violent?
But no. Simone goes walking with him along the lonely,
stone-filled beach, and she gradually realizes that she still loves Michael.
They again become intimate. He has bought an airline ticket for her to
return to America with him to a simple, debt-free life in the woods of
Vermont. But she is reserved. Michael has spent years in an insane asylum as
a result of his Vietnam experiences. And what about Simone's two small
children? What about debt-ridden Donald? Simone realizes that she no longer
loves him, while the children no longer love her. They remain attached to
It is a beautifully written book. Suspense, which ends in
But still, despite the fact that Michael does not try to blackmail Simone,
we are left with the threat of all those compromising photos. Not only was
Mrs. Klatten trapped in this way. There was also the recent case of the
elderly Max Mosely, caught on film in an embarrassing sado-masochistic
"party" with a group of prostitutes, which then appeared on the front pages
of all the London newspapers. Mosely had undoubtedly made many enemies in
the world of Formula 1 racing. Yet he fought back, suing the newspapers, and
he won. Good for him! This was not blackmail. Instead it was the attempt to
destroy a person using a gross violation of privacy, playing on the base,
hypocritical reactions of an unfeeling public.
All of this is made possible by the technical means of
photography. Yet these days, photography has taken on a totally new
dimension. In Orwell's Brave New World, everybody was forced to have a large
television which must be continuously turned on, and which was combined with
a camera so that Big Brother could see what everybody was doing all the
time. Yet what has happened in the modern world?
People eagerly buy laptop computers with little cameras
which are continuously pointed at them. The latest "design" laptops have a
large, dark glass surface which hides the position of the camera. These
laptops are connected to the Internet, and who knows what information is
being transferred? Every computer running a "closed source" operating system
might be sending information to various unknown centralized storage sites.
All of this in the name of that vague, meaningless word: "terrorism".
And what about mobile telephones? These provide us
with the hand cameras of the modern world. How easy it is to make a private
snapshot. None of those problems people used to have with putting the film
in to be developed and printed, so that perhaps the people who deal with
films might see the intimate scenes which had been photographed. No. Now
everything is private! After all, intimacy is a part of life. According to
the Selfish Gene, reproduction is
as important as eating, breathing. All of this is playfully photographed,
using these expensive, designer mobile phones.
But is it private? It is a further part of human nature
to enjoy scandal. To destroy others using the complex emotions associated
with the biological act of reproduction. And we learn that the modern mobile
telephone can be used in ways we had not thought about. Even when we think
it is turned off, it can be turned on by a secret signal from the telephone
system. Thus, unknown to us, all our conversations can be overheard wherever
we carry the mobile phone, whether we think it is turned off or not. And of
course, all the private photos which we have made can be secretly downloaded
to some unknown central storage site without our knowledge.
How extraordinary it is that Orwell's vision has become
reality, not in the enforced oppression of East Germany, but instead
voluntarily, by people actually spending large sums of money in order to buy
the latest, most fashionable telephones!
Mercy, by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is a winner of the Nobel Prize for
Literature, and she is a professor, most recently at Princeton. Perhaps
because of this I found the book to be heavy going. Yet at only 165 pages,
one soon comes to the end. The narration is often cryptic to the point of
being nearly unintelligible. But by reading the synopsis of the book in the
review in the Guardian, I was able to continue without becoming
totally confused. The fact that I was not the only reader to have problems
with the plot is demonstrated by another review which I have linked to
above, in an African paper. The reviewer mistakenly confused the character
Sorrow as being an American Indian. In fact, Lina was the Indian. Sorrow was
the daughter of a sea captain. Thus we see that the task of reading this
book is akin to the problems of solving the Guardian's cryptic crossword,
where, even when the solution to last week's puzzle is spelled out in its
entirety, still it makes no sense to me!
But I suppose that is really an exaggeration. By the time
one reaches the end of the book, the beginning then does make sense. Reading
it a second time, all would be clear. I am simply overly pampered, expecting
books to be clear narratives, starting at the beginning, telling an
understandable story, and then coming to an end. Thank goodness I am not a
student of Literature at Princeton who must pass exams concerning
The book is concerned with a group of three strange,
rather dysfunctional women living on a farm somewhere in the northern
colonies of what is to become the United States around the year 1680. They
have different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Their status with respect to
slavery - either being bound or free - seems unclear, yet in each case
extremely burdensome. Each of the women is living in a dream world -
an individual nightmare. The book is supposed to be telling us about the
origins of various traits in the character of the United States. But it is
difficult to take the book seriously on the level of an historical novel.
Instead it seemed to me to be more an allegory of the situation of women in
the modern world.
Surely there are numbers of farms in modern-day Vermont,
or upstate New York, run by a few women who have met by chance, escaping
impossible domestic situations. They are unpractical, consumed by their
pasts. But they are saved by a pair of friendly, male homosexual neighbors,
helping out, just as is the case in this book. A story of a kind of modern
rural American life.
The characters are: Paul and Johnnie, two brothers
who grew up in relative poverty in London, Louise, who is Paul's wife, and
Anna, the daughter. Then there is also Sonia, Paul's second wife, hovering
in the background, trying to tidy up the mess made by the other characters,
and in the end giving up and instead having an affair at the riding stables.
Paul escapes from poverty by hard work, dealing with real
estate. Johnnie is twelve years younger than Paul, and so Paul is the big
brother, helping Johnnie through everything, giving him all the money he
needs. As is unfortunately so often the case in such a situation, Johnnie
becomes dependent upon Paul, yet resents everything that Paul represents.
While driving the flash cars, wearing the expensive clothes, looking good
with all the money Paul provides, Johnnie tries to obtain his own success by
dealing with the criminal elements of the big city.
Paul, Louise and Johnnie live in a fashionable town house
in London. Paul is always away. Johnnie is also away most of the time,
associating with his crowd. After ten years the marriage with Louise remains
barren, but this is altered in a torrid scene where she is taken by Johnnie,
thus creating poor little Anna.
Of course everybody says that Paul is Anna's father, yet
everybody knows that that is not true. Also everybody pretends that if
Johnnie could only understand what is good for him, then he will become a
wonderful, upright member of society. And everybody knows that that will
Thus Louise, who was formerly an attractive woman, takes
strongly to drink. She is an alcoholic, to such an extent that she is often
unable to make it to the toilet in time. And so the house smells of urine.
It is a mess. She is a mess! Flabby, ugly. Paul leaves, taking Anna with
him, and Louise is allowed two hours of visiting rights per week. A driver
brings her, and picks her up at the precise time. But even this is too much
for Paul. He buys a house up in Yorkshire, taking Sonia and Anna away from
London and telling Louise that he will no longer tolerate her influence upon
Helen Dunmore describes this whole situation from the
points of view of the different characters, from chapter to chapter, so that
we can understand what makes them tick. In the end, Johnnie is overwhelmed
with debts to some very dangerous characters in the London underworld, and
he comes to Louise for help. They escape together - two losers - and they
are thrown off the deep end! The inevitable conclusion. A gripping story.
The story here builds up like a Chekhov drama. The
various characters gather in an isolated house near the sea in the south of
England. Apparently Helen Dunmore was thinking of Charleston
House, which was owned by Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf.
They experienced all sorts of sisterly dramas, and in the end, Virginia
Woolf threw herself into the river Ouse, near Charleston House, and drowned.
In this book, we have Isabel, who has just given birth to
the baby Anthony, but with such complications that she has had a
hysterectomy. Her sister Nina is summoned to help look after her. Then we
have Susan, a young woman who is serving as a kind of nanny while Isabel
recovers. And there is Richard, the husband and father, and Edward, who is
homosexual. Nina is the narrator.
As in a psycho-theater, the various relationships emerge.
The house is filled with tension. Isabel is a thin, nervous, yet physically
beautiful woman. (We think of the photos of the young Virginia Woolf.) She
can no longer tolerate the physical presence of Richard. He is a famous
economist, continuously flying away to important meetings around the globe.
(We think of John Maynard Keynes, who was also a member of the Bloomsbury
Group.) Isabel spends endless hours with Edward in her room, having
secrets together, apart from the others. The baby screams and is brought to
Isabel, who despite her weakness, insists on breast-feeding him. Nina
recalls her childhood together with Isabel, and she thinks she loves her.
But Nina and Isabel are very different people. Nina is an earthy person who
loves cooking. All of this leads to torrid love scenes together with Richard
in the hot, dry summer garden.
But we learn that this is not the true drama. In fact,
back then, twenty five years ago when Nina and Isabel were children, they
had a baby brother, Colin. And Colin died of cot
death, whatever that is. Nina is an artist (as was Vanessa Bell) and
suddenly, when seeing Isabel bending over the cot of her baby, she sees the
scene of long ago. Nina was only four years old, while Isabel was seven. And
she sees Isabel bending over Colin's cot, smothering him to death. But is
this vague memory of her early childhood true? She confronts Isabel. But
Isabel says no; in fact Nina herself killed Colin, and she (Isabel) has been
covering up for Nina all these years. Is this true? Or perhaps the small,
four year old Nina, out of jealousy, told Isabel that she wished Colin were
dead, and Isabel fulfilled that wish. And what about poor Anthony? Will he
suffer a similar "cot death"?
The tension builds, and we read on to the conclusion!
Robert W. Felix has a website called "Ice Age Now",
which I have linked to here. He thinks that an ice age could be imminent.
Well, yes. We are now in the middle of an ice age epoch. The reason the ice
happens to be - thankfully - confined to Greenland and Antarctica, and a few
isolated glaciers here and there, is that we are now in an interglacial
period. The last interglacial period was 125,000 years ago. It lasted for a
much shorter time than the present warmth, which has been with us for about
12,000 years. Just looking at the record of the temperature of the earth,
for example in this article
in the Wikepedia, one sees the obvious fact that a renewed plunge into the
cold depths of ice is long overdue.
How ridiculous is the assertion that the world is now too
warm! For most of the last 500 million years, the earth was much warmer than
it is today. During times of warmth, life thrives. But when it is cold, the
earth becomes a much more hostile place. Ice kills almost all life. And
while the tropical regions of the earth remain relatively warm even during
the long (100,000 year long!) icy phases of the current ice age epoch, the
temperature gradient between the warm tropics and the ice become much
greater than now. Therefore the world is battered by intense storms during
these cold phases. The ice cores recovered in Antarctica show high levels of
dust, which swirled throughout the atmosphere, blown off the barren,
wind-swept lands of the earth. It is difficult to see how modern
civilization could exist in such a climate. Thankfully, the ice has not yet
returned. And hopefully it will not return in the foreseeable future!
Every now and then I have read various books about the
ice ages, and the theories about what causes them. For example Fred Hoyle
wrote a book about 30 years ago called "Ice: The Ultimate Human
Catastrophe". His theory was that during an ice age, an interglacial period
such as we are now experiencing ends when a large asteroid, or whatever,
crashes into the cold ocean, causing tremendous storms and snow, resulting
from the overly large difference in temperature between the oceans and the
warm land. In order to save humanity from the next ice phase, he proposed
that people should use the difference in temperature between the cold deep
ocean and the warm surface water at the tropics to generate all the power
that modern civilization needs. The deep waters will thereby gradually
become warmed so that the danger of a future ice phase would be lessened.
That seems to me to make perfectly good sense.
So I was interested to see what Robert W. Felix might
have to say about ice ages. His idea is that the reversals of the earth's
magnetic field might have something to do with it. Well, OK. My mind is open
to all sorts of suggestions. Therefore I clicked into amazon.com and ordered
this book. It came today, and I have now read it.
But what a disappointment! Robert W. Felix is obviously
not a scientist. The book is as full of nonsense as the worst garbage Al
Gore has written! It should be consigned to the shelves of the esoteric
bookshops, along with the rest of the nonsense which fills the minds of
people who seem to devote so much energy to science, yet without bothering
to look up the facts.
For example, he confuses the concepts of ionization and
nuclear fission. He thinks that man-made nuclear fusion is caused by
magnetic fields. Perhaps he has read something about the attempts to obtain
controlled fusion power using the tokamak
concept. However up till now, man-made nuclear fusion is obtained in a
hydrogen bomb, which uses a fission bomb to first obtain the temperatures of
millions of degrees which are necessary in order to start the fusion
reaction. Robert W. Felix appears to seriously believe that when the
magnetic field of the earth drops to zero during a reversal, then the
effects of the solar wind will be so great as to cause millions of
spontaneous thermonuclear explosions all over the earth! What nonsense! The
many physicists currently working on the ITER
experiment would be very surprised to hear how simple it would be to achieve
He also imagines that the thick layers of coal in the
earth are formed when huge amounts of nitrogen in the atmosphere would be
converted to carbon-14. In reality, only very tiny amounts of C-14 are
produced by cosmic rays (around one part per trillion!).
And then the C-14 decays back to nitrogen through beta decay. Thus all of
Felix's imaginary coal would decay to nitrogen within a few thousand years.
He also asserts that the amount of uranium in coal is as much as a tenth of
a percent, or one part in a thousand! Indeed, there is uranium in coal, a
fact which might present a puzzle for some theories of how it is formed.
Also it results in more radioactive emissions from coal-fired power stations
than those of uranium-fired ones. Nevertheless, as we can see here,
Robert W. Felix has exaggerated the thing by a factor of almost a thousand!
In fact it is only a few parts per million.
How unfortunate it is that Robert W. Felix has issued
this book. By doing so, he tarnishes all speculative theories about the
physics of the earth, placing them in association with the usual esoteric
rubbish. And yet it seems to me that much of what serves as the
"conventional wisdom" these days should
be brought into question. The way the present global warming nonsense has
been sold to the public via television seems to be a classic example of mass
conditioning, reminiscent of closed communist governments. One can only
speculate on which obscure interests might be behind it. For example, Al
Gore is well known to be supported by the atomic industries.
But also the idea that large-scale electrical and
magnetic fields may play a decisive role in many astronomical phenomena
seems to me to be plausible. What is it that forms the strange shapes of
dust and gas clouds in interstellar space? Is it only gravity? What a shame
that Robert W. Felix's book brings such a simple question as this into the
realms of the disreputable.
is a thread which holds things together. That is to say, linked stories. In
this book, the river is the Narmada
River, which runs westwards through the middle of India, dividing the
country into the north and the south. Since I know very little about India,
I had never heard of the Narmada before reading this book. Apparently it is
considered to be of great religious significance, even more so than the
Ganges. Indeed, looking at pictures of all those people immersing themselves
in the Ganges at Banaras, one gains the impression that the water is quite
filthy. In contrast to this, the Narmada is perhaps not so overrun, and thus
somewhat cleaner. Particularly so near its source, near the pilgrim town of
In the book we are carried from story to story by an old
Indian civil servant who, before retirement, has decided to withdraw from
the world, yet without completely renouncing his comfortable position in the
government. Whereas he has nearly reached the highest levels of Indian
bureaucracy, now he has applied for, and taken up, a position as
Administrator of a government guest house overlooking the Narmada near
Amarkantak. Government employees, on their way from one place to another, or
even just looking for a place to stay temporarily, arrive at the guest house
to rest amongst the ancient forests and traditions of Old India. The
narrator himself has gotten into the habit of rising before dawn to walk in
the forest and meditate, sometimes walking across to a nearby village to
have a talk with his friend Tarik Mia, the imam of the local mosque. The
narrator has no particular religion. He is seeking some sort of truth in the
ancient myths of the Narmada. He meets various ascetics, musicians,
distraught women, and each of these people tell him their stories.
Gita Mehta was born into an India in turmoil, on the
verge of freeing itself from centuries of British colonial rule. Her family
had wealth and importance, besides being prominent supporters of the
struggle for Indian independence. Thus - in the vocabulary of the George W.
Bush era - they were "terrorists", and so many members of her family spent
long years in prison. But now Gita Mehta is a fierce defender of Indian
culture. Thus this book is unlike most of the books we read about India. It
is not written from the point of view of a European being astonished about
what is in India. Nor from the point of view of an Indian explaining what
India is like to a European. The stories are of the modern world, yet the
narrator is seeking the traditions of old. The book is just as self-centered
as any American novel placed in America, or any English novel placed in
England. There is no need to qualify it; to place it into some other
context. Here, India is the whole world. A very refreshing point of view!
Sir Michael Jenkins is a retired British diplomat.
Therefore, as one would expect, this book is very diplomatic. According to
the short synopsis of his life which appears on the front page of the book,
while being privately educated before progressing to Kings College,
Cambridge, the author spent much of his youth in France. He retired in 1993
to become Vice President of Dresdner Kleinwort (a bank which has become
better known in recent years for its bloated management and exorbitant
"bonuses") and President of Boeing U.K. (which is known for recruiting
highly placed retired bureaucrats, in order to advance their sales of
military equipment). Therefore, as the reader can clearly see, in contrast
to Sir Michael Jenkins, I make absolutely no effort to be diplomatic here!
Just before his retirement, the author published this
book in 1992, and last week I happened upon it in the library. The story is
concerned with a young English schoolboy (fourteen years old) who is sent
for the summer of 1950 or so, to stay with a family in the north of France,
near the coast and the border with Belgium. So I suppose this reflects in
some way the experiences of the author as a young man.
The members of the French family are not really
relatives, but in a way - indirectly - they are. They live in a large old
house with an expansive view of the fields of the French part of Flanders.
The family consists of six or eight brothers and sisters who are all in
their geriatric eighties, plus a few younger people as well. They have names
like "Tante Yvonne", "Tante Florence", "Oncle Auguste", and so on. In fact
these are the titles of the first three chapters of the book. There are 11
chapters, and the 9th through to the 11th are entitled "Agathe",
"Madeleine", and then again "Tante Yvonne". So these characters are each
described in flowery, loving terms. In the end, the summer turns into
September and the hero must leave beautiful, warm France to return to the
cold, gray reality of an English boarding school in the early 1950s. But
Tante Yvonne tells him in a loving farewell letter that he must soon return
to his family in France. The poignant final scene is that he returns to
experience the passing away of poor Tante Yvonne.
All of this is so different from the usual rough
brutality which we are used to in modern literature that it is almost a
pleasant change. I read a paperback edition, and both on the back, and on
the front covers, we have the quotation of Dirk Bogarde, namely that this is
"A radiant book". Yes, I suppose
so. I remember Dirk Bogarde playing next to Julie Christie - who was really
an extremely radiant person - in that wonderful film, Darling,
back then in the 1960s.
So I would recommend this book if you are looking for
something cleansed of all naughty thoughts, and also if you share the view
that France is the home of all things wonderful and refined.
I also enjoy visiting France. After all, my surname -
Hemion - is French. Nevertheless, any honest, non-diplomatic traveler
remarks at the obvious circumstance that when traveling through Flanders
from the Flemish part of Belgium to the Wallonian (French-speaking) part,
the countryside, which had been characterized by prosperous, well-organized
villages and well-made roads, suddenly degenerates to a dilapidated,
run-down state as soon as French-speaking regions are encountered. One
shouldn't generalize. There are many prosperous, well-kept towns in the
middle and the south of France. Perhaps it is simply the geriatric
structures described in this book which are keeping French Flanders in such
a depressed state.
I've had this book for a number of years. When I
first got it, I was mainly interested in understanding the theories of
harmonics which so fascinated the Greeks. Also I was wondering what role the
flute might have played in the ancient world. But this time, I decided to
just read the whole thing.
Unfortunately the book is extremely pricey, so I would
not recommend buying it. (I was able to obtain an author's discount years
ago.) Although it is only a paperback, the O.U.P. has set a list price of
$109.99 on the book! At least there is a very pleasant picture on the cover,
which is of a "Young man piping and a courtesan dancing with castanets", by
Epictetus, c. 500 B.C.
The picture brings to mind the many references to "flute
girls" in ancient Greek literature. However as West makes very clear, the
flute played almost no role at all in ancient Greek music. The aulos was, in fact, some sort of
a double reed instrument, similar to the oboe. In the illustrations, the
player always has two of them in his/her mouth, and there often seems to be
a kind of band, tied around the head and covering the mouth, perhaps aiding
the player to develop even more pressure than that which is required with
the modern oboe. This contradicts the pleasant image brought to mind when we
think of a "flute girl".
And the fact that the player had two of them in the mouth
at the same time, one fingered by the right hand, the other by the left
hand, seems absurd. Imagine an oboe player amusing us with a similar feat
today! It would be worthy of a circus performance. A large-mouthed person
might be able to make 3, 4, or more oboes sound simultaneously, spreading
the double reeds across his wide lips. It might even be worth an entry in
the Guinness Book of Records!
But no. Surely the ancient Greeks, with their refined
sense of art, their theater which was filled with music, must have had
something which transcended the level of a circus performance. Thinking
about all this, it becomes clear that playing two auloi
at the same time would open up new possibilities in music. After all, one
would then be able to play two notes at the same time, both receiving the
same nuances of breathing and phrasing, and thus allowing much more intimate
possibilities for playing duets.
The other great instrument of the ancient Greeks was the
lyre, or, in its concert
version, the kithara.
Again, the lyre seems to be an extremely limited and primitive instrument.
You strum it with the right hand and hold it, while preventing some of the
strings from sounding by touching them with the fingers of the left hand.
The word "kithara" is not unlike the word "guitar", but although the ancient
illustrations seem to depict a most elaborate instrument, it is difficult to
see how the kithara could approach the possibilities of guitar, or lute
playing. Indeed, the ancients did have lutes, but they preferred the kithara
for their great musical contests. As West explains, it is possible to
imagine unusual techniques which the ancient virtuosos might have developed,
thus giving a far more subtle music than one would at first think to be
The music notation of the Greeks also seems very strange.
They used a system of special symbols, one for each note of the scale. A
Japanese once showed me the traditional Japanese method of notating music,
which was similar. But surely anyone would say that the modern system of
music notation is superior to such traditional systems.
In contrast to Sir Michael Jenkins with his
fairy-tale like story-telling, Helen Dunmore enjoys an honest clarity in her
books. Unfortunately, I have now almost gone through all of the ones in the
library. There remains The Siege,
which appears to be a rather depressing narrative of what life would have
been like for a young girl during the siege of Leningrad in World War II.
The present book is concerned with understanding how a
different sort of young girl might become a high-class prostitute, or
call-girl, in modern London. Nadine is only sixteen years old. She is doing
very well at school. She has a sister, Lulu, who is retarded, genetically
malformed. Therefore the parents put all their energies into Lulu. Lulu is
everything. The parents are continuously exhausted from the intensive care
they give to Lulu, so that nothing is left for Nadine. She lives in a
vacuum, ignored by her parents. At most, they take notice of her when she
disturbs the attention they are giving to Lulu.
They decide to sell the house and move to an
"alternative", farm-like community somewhere in southern Germany, where lots
of other parents and their deformed children absorb themselves in Nature,
and the Simple Life. Nadine can just take care of herself back in England.
She can be left alone to live in some apartment, getting brilliant marks in
school, a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, and so on. Who cares? Forget
Nadine; Lulu is the problem.
Therefore Nadine falls in love with an older man, Kai,
who is Finnish. Kai seems to be in the real estate business, together with
another man, Tony. They have bought a run-down town-house, and they move
into it, with the idea of renovating the place. Unfortunately, there is a
sitting tenant living up in the attic. Enid, an old woman of 70 or 80 whom
Kai and Tony would very much like to evict. But they are away on business
all day long, so Nadine makes friends with Enid. In the evenings, Kai and
Nadine have torrid sexual encounters on the large double bed in their room.
Nadine thinks that Kai is her boyfriend, and that life
can just go on like this forever. She does a bit of work as an usher in the
local cinema. But both Kai and Tony seem to have lots of money - always
cash, never credit cards. They buy extravagant things. One evening Kai
brings an extremely expensive, off-white silk dress, and Nadine becomes an
unimaginably desirable object of beauty and self-possession. But Enid, up in
the attic, knows what's going on.
One day, Tony invites Nadine to accompany him to a dinner
in a fashionable London restaurant to meet a "business partner", the
ministerial-level politician, Paul Parrett. As with that real-life public
figure, Max Mosely, he is interested in sado-masochistic experiences, yet of
a much milder variety than those which entrapped Mosely. Nadine knows
nothing of all this. She finds Paul Parrett to be a very nice man, and so
she accompanies him after the restaurant in his chauffeured limousine to his
luxurious apartment, high over the streets of London. But she is shocked
when he proposes what she could do. They talk a bit, and she leaves.
I won't go any further into the plot, since it could
spoil the book for anyone who might want to read this marvelous novel. Many
dramatic scenes. But I will say that in the end it does not turn out as we
suspect it must. In fact, Nadine and Paul Parrett come together into a
Joseph O'Neill was born in Ireland, grew up in
Holland, became an English lawyer, and is now living in New York with his
family in the Chelsea
Hotel. Besides writing books, he is a long-term member of the Staten
Island Cricket Club. Thus all of these things are mixed together into a
large jumble in this book. (I am a bit confused here since at the end of the
book there is an interview with the author and a short synopsis of his life,
wherein it says that he lives at the Chelsea Hotel. Yet according to the
Wikipedia, the hotel no longer accepts long-term residents. The maximum stay
is limited to 21 days.)
The narrator is Hans, a Dutchman who moves to New York
with his English wife Rachael and small son Jake during the euphoric
"dot.com" era of international finance. Both Hans and Rachael are typical of
the parasites who struck it rich in those days. Hans has a position as
"financial analyst" at a multinational bank, analyzing the oil industry in
the style of Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist. Yet
unlike the character in that book, Hans cannot be considered to be a
modern-day janissary. Indeed, the Dutch have long been involved in oil and
Rachael is a highly-paid lawyer, profiting from the greed
and arrogance of others, and thus, as with most lawyers, making life
unpleasant for the rest of us. Thus Hans and Rachael have amassed a personal
wealth of a few million dollars.
After the airplanes fly into the World Trade Center and
three of the skyscrapers there fall down, New York is gripped by a feeling
of angst and hysteria. George W. Bush, who at first seemed to handle the
situation sensibly, soon turns out to be the figurehead of a movement to
terrorize the world, invading various foreign countries, killing hundreds of
thousands of people. Rachael says that she can no longer live in such a
country, and she does not want Jake to grow up in such an atmosphere. Thus
she returns with him to London. She also wants to leave Hans. Perhaps she is
gradually becoming poisoned by the immorality of both her profession and
that of Hans.
In London she hitches up with a new partner, a chef who
runs a very successful London restaurant. Although he is wealthy by any
"normal" standards, his income is of course dwarfed by the ill-gotten riches
of both Hans and Rachael - even calculated separately. On the other hand, he
is actually doing something creative, which is a wonderful experience for
Rachael who, until now, has only experienced the destructive side of life.
Unfortunately for Rachael, the new boyfriend soon finds further girlfriends
to amuse himself with, leaving Rachael in the lurch. Thus Hans also returns
to London and Rachael, and they live on, tolerating one another into the
In the book London is contrasted with New York as being a
pole of sensible, non-hysterical, orderly life. Yet in the period dealt
with, Tony Blair saw fit - for some unfathomable reason - to appoint himself
as Deputy Figurehead of terror and bloated parasitism beside George W. Bush.
As a result, the streets of London now bristle with television cameras,
allowing Big Brother to record everything. These days even the buses and
subway trains of London are filled with closed-circuit television cameras.
Of course that did not stop bombs blowing up in the London subway on July 7,
2005. The narrative of this event purveyed throughout the "news" was
difficult to reconcile with reality, owing to the fact that all of the
thousands of CCT television cameras which would have recorded the events
were - according to this narrative - either turned off, or otherwise not
functioning. All of this brings to mind the case of the Bologna
train station bombing of 1980 which is thought to be associated with
Gladio division of NATO. Thus it seems to me that life would have
become more peaceful, if less remunerative, for Hans and Rachael if they had
moved back to his native Holland.
In any case the book makes much of the fact that New
York, up until the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century had been a Dutch
town, namely Nieuw Amsterdam.
Also much is made of the fact that the game of cricket has a long tradition
in New York. As already mentioned, the author is a member of the Staten
Island Cricket Club. And I was astonished to read in the book - a fact
which I suppose must be true - that the great Sir Donald Bradman actually
played there in the 1930s. For me, the book was saved from being nothing
more than a meaningless jumble of nonsense by the descriptions of cricket
which it contains. One of the main disadvantages of living in Germany,
rather than in Australia, is that here it is impossible to follow the
Apart from cricket, unpleasant converstations between
Hans and Rachael, and remembered visits to his mother, the main thing that
happens in the book is that after realizing that his international driving
license has expired, Hans attempts to obtain a New York State drivers
license. In New York City - a city in the midst of hysteria - he is treated
incredibly badly by the loutish bureaucrats assigned the business of dealing
with such things. They seem to have been poisoned by the Department of
Homeland Security. Only at the end of the book does Hans travel away from
the City to Upstate New York, where a sensible policeman gives him his
license with little fuss.
All of this reminds me of my own experiences with such
things. As with most of the other students in the high school in New Jersey
which I attended, I obtained my drivers license on my 17th birthday. Before
that, one of the teachers from the high school took us for the occasional
spin in a car in order to learn how to drive. My only memory of that is that
the teacher once told me that I was exceeding the speed limit during a
stretch along the Garden State Parkway. (But now, after 45 years of driving,
I have never had an accident and never received a ticket, except for the
fact that I was once held up on my motorcycle while carrying a pillion
passenger, and the policeman saw that my license had not been ticked as
being valid for this. However I had already had a motorcycle license for
more than a year. Thus having this detail validated was a mere formality
which I had not bothered to attend to.)
Anyway, in the move from the U.S.A. to Australia, when my
international drivers license expired I did have to pass a driving test of
sorts in Canberra. The policeman told me that there were 7 (or so)
situations where one must give way. The Question: what are they? I was able
to think of 3 or 4, but the rest stumped me. So the policeman told me what
the others were, and I said yes, I will try to remember them. So then we
went out to the street and he stood on the curb and I drove around the
block, being careful to pretend to drive slowly and use the blinkers. And
that was that. A very friendly experience!
In Germany, things were incomparably more simple. The
friendly woman behind the desk asked me in an apologetic manner if I really
wanted to have my German license endorsed for motorcycles as well as for
cars. Since at that stage I thought that I would only remain in Germany for
a year or two, and I wasn't really thinking about motorcycles, I told her
not to bother. In the years since, I have occasionally regretted this, but
not very much.
The link is to a review of the book in the New York
Times back in 1979 by Margaret Atwood.
(Note: I see that for
some reason, The New York Times redirects this internet address to a site
demanding a password. You can bypass this problem by clicking on the link
in Google which appears if you put in the search words "Plath Johnny
She mentions a story named "Among the Bumble-bees", but it was not
included in the edition of the book which I have read (from Faber &
Faber, 1978 edition). In general Margaret Atwood deplores the fact that
these stories were printed at all, since Sylvia Plath is considered to be a
great poet, whose genre was "confessional poetry". And for Atwood, these
short stories are of lower quality. Yet Plath herself considered the short,
gushing emotions of a poem, disjointed from context, without resolution, to
be too easy - less worthwhile than a complete story, told from beginning to
end. So it was her ambition to progress from being a "mere" poet, to become
an accomplished writer of prose. The few books on the library shelf where I
found this book which were actually written by Sylvia Plath are surrounded
by a flock of secondary academic books, presumably written by feminist
literature students, examining her confessional poetry in all its detail.
Sylvia Plath had a short, less than happy life. Some
biographical details are here
in her entry in the Wikipedia. She grew up in Massachusetts, near the ocean,
attending Smith College, then she moved to England where she married the
poet Ted Hughes. Even
while growing up, her labile state of mind became apparent. She dwelled on
suicide. And a number of the stories in this book are concerned with
suicide. In fact she had episodes of mental hospitals, and she received
electro-convulsive therapy. Perhaps she suffered from some form of what is
now called "bipolar disorder". In any case, Ted Hughes must have been a
disaster for her.
In one or two of the autobiographical stories in the
book, she describes her life with Ted Hughes. They are the poor, innocent,
striving young poets. In one story they live together in a room in a
dilapidated old house somewhere in Spain. The landlady has lost all her
wealth and tries to hide her poverty. And the young Ted Hughes and Sylvia
Plath try and cook the cheapest possible things, hunched over a cooker
consisting of a wick immersed in gasoline, on the floor of their room.
Later, Hughes has gained some success, and they live in a cottage in the
English countryside, interacting with various geriatric neighbors.
Hughes himself edited this volume, writing an
Introduction, explaining what these stories are and why Sylvia Plath wrote
them, as if he had no particular emotional ties to her. Nowhere does he
mention how Sylvia Plath died. The fact of the matter is that Ted Hughes,
perhaps in common with many (male) poets, was a great and constant
womanizer. He left his wife and their small children in the lurch in 1962 to
go and live with his new lover, Assia Wevill. This must have been the reason
for Sylvia Plath's desperate attempt to earn money by having stories
published in various mass-circulation magazines. And so she was finally
successful in committing suicide in 1963, placing her head in the gas oven
in the kitchen in order to poison herself. Ted Hughes, that Great English
Poet, happily continued along in his womanizing. Thus, six years later Assia
Wevill committed suicide in exactly the same way, but this time killing the
four year old daughter she had together with Hughes. At least Sylvia Plath's
small children survived their mother's suicide.
All of this is certainly something which will arouse the
sympathies of the world's feminists. And the fact that Ted Hughes was asked
to edit this volume seems to me to reflect on the extremely bad taste of the
publishers. As Hughes writes at the end of his Introduction, it was only
after the book was in press that he learned of the fact that there were many
more manuscripts which Sylvia Plath's mother, Mrs. Aurelia Plath, had
withheld from him. Good for her!
This sordid story does not, of itself, make Sylvia Plath
a feminist. On the contrary, the short stories in the book paint a
completely different picture.
Reading various synopsizes of Sylvia Plath's life,
it seems that this book is very much autobiographical. But whether as
autobiography or as a novel, it is a wonderful book, full of life. The
heroin is named Esther Greenwood - an ugly name when set beside the
beautiful name of the author. Esther's father, as with that of Sylvia, was a
professor in Boston. Perhaps MIT, or Harvard, or something. Sylvia's father
was an expert on bees. But as with Sylvia's father, Esther's father died
when she was still a small child. Thus the family succumbed to the fate of
academic poverty. Esther's mother then kept the family afloat teaching
shorthand and typing.
At the beginning of the book we meet Esther at the height
of her career as a student in some fine Bostonian woman's college. She is
being financed by a private scholarship, paid for by Mrs. Philomena Guinea,
a rich old woman whose wealth is due to a number of trivial books - best
sellers - she published sometime in the past. The real-life benefactress of
Sylvia Plath was named Olive
Higgins Prouty, who, from what I gather from a cursory perusal of the
Internet, was not at all like Mrs. Philomena Guinea.
Esther has gotten straight "A's" in school, and also in
college. She is a perfect student. She has been invited to New York along
with some other perfect students from other places to experience the
wonderful, intoxicating atmosphere of the Big City, and the offices of some
glamorous womans magazine. The first half of the book gives us a funny
account of all this. I can imagine just what it was like. Making fun of all
the false pretenses of those big city people.
But obviously Esther has her hang-ups as well. After all,
what normal person goes through life without ever seeing a "B"? Not to
mention an "F"! For example her boyfriend is Buddy Willard, a medical
student. As a child of the American 1940s and 50s, she places great
importance on the idea of virginity. Buddy decides one day to undress in
front of Esther in order to demonstrate to her the anatomy of the male body.
This prompts Esther to ask Buddy if he is also a virgin. But to her shock,
he answers honestly that during the summer, when he was working as a waiter
in some sort of fast-food restaurant, a waitress pushed herself into him,
and so he enjoyed a summer's worth of erotic activities. So Esther decides
that she hates Buddy and that she must also lose her virginity somewhere
(but not to Buddy!).
Returning from the Big City to straight-laced Boston, all
of those straight-"A's", and her virginity, and questions about which path
might lie in the future - literature, shorthand typing, travels, motherhood,
more meaningless "A's" - built up into a storm of confusion and angst in her
brain. She could not sleep for days on end. Weeks. Her thoughts revolved
about the subject of suicide. She found a huge number of sleeping pills,
crept under the porch of the house, and swallowed them all.
Emerging alive from this experience, we enter the second
half of the book where Sylvia Plath describes various psychiatric
institutions of the 1950s. A self-satisfied psychiatrist gives her two
expensive one hour interviews, then gives her a painful dose of electrical
convulsions, brought about by attaching electrodes to the skin of the skull
and flipping the switch. Esther experiences this as the torture which the
more modern victims of George W. Bush's "War on Terror" have been subjected
to (although of course they must have been subjected to unimaginably greater
voltages than that which Esther was forced to endure). Esther's depression
turns into hatred and she becomes a difficult patient, sliding deeper and
deeper into the depths of psychiatric nightmare.
But she is saved by the intervention of her benefactress,
Mrs. Philomena Guinea, who comes and finances her entry into an elegant,
expensive psychiatric institution. The book ends on an optimistic note. Her
depression is cured, as well as is her virginity, which she loses in a free
evening, away from the clinic, to an awkward 26-year old genius who is a
full professor of mathematics at some Boston college. Presumably MIT.
It is a beautiful, lightly written book. But it is sad
that the real Sylvia Plath relapsed into depression and ended her life with
suicide when she was only thirty years old. Unfortunately the copy of the
book which I took out of the library had been defaced by generations of
German students of English literature who underlined countless passages and
words, and scribbled other things around the pages of the book with their
After googling the words "Roth" together with
"Indignation", I found many reviews of this book, one of which I have linked
to here. All of the reviews are positive, most of them overwhelmingly so.
But I am not a fan of Philip Roth, and I didn't like the book (I read it
because it is the next one for our reading circle), so I suppose I am
practically alone in this.
As ever, Roth makes much of his Jewishness and also his
recurring theme of adolescent masturbation. Even more so than in Portnoy's
complaint, this book dwells on that subject in all its various forms. Why do
most of the reviewers shy away from telling us honestly what the book is
about? Instead they avoid the subject, telling us instead about "passion",
"fascination", and what have you. The book is explained as a deep commentary
on the hidden lusts of small-town America, perhaps giving us a rational
reason for the endless wars of aggression which seem to emanate from that
Such is the way we are supposed to think about Philip
Roth. But another interpretation might be that the very Indignation
referred to in the title is the source of this aggression. Why can't Philip
Roth (and presumably the rest of small-town America), at 75, grow out of his
adolescent fascination with - and obvious indignation about - simple bodily
The book becomes nothing more than a pointless, cynical
satire on small-town America. The narrator, Marcus, is the son of a Jewish
kosher butcher in Newark, New Jersey. His father becomes lost in a
generalized fear of life, for some not particularly well explained reason.
Therefore Marcus escapes to the imaginary Winesburg, Ohio, and its imaginary
college. There, following the worst traditions of English boarding schools,
or similar Islamic institutions, the boys and girls are strictly separated
and kept under surveillance while living in claustrophobic proximity to the
members of their own sex. The preoccupation with various bodily discharges
reaches a climax in a scene in the local hospital, where Marcus, who has
just had an appendectomy, experiences on the one hand the attentions of the
the nurse, Miss Clement, with her bed-pan, and then soon afterwards those of
Olivia, a female student dealing with the opposite organ. All of this is
described by Roth in much detail, and it becomes the central point of the
book, upon which the rest of the story depends. The book ends with a sudden
lurch into what Roth gives as the moral consequence of all this imagined
immorality. Namely Marcus is sent to the Korean war (it is 1951-2), where he
is promptly killed, and so he can reflect in Heaven, or Purgatory, or
wherever Roth has placed him in this situation, on the consequences of
Of course all of this is standard fare in modern
literature. The thing that I don't like is Roth's cynicism. I don't
understand how women reviewers of these books can put up with it. As with
most of his female characters, Olivia is dealt with superficially, simply as
an agent for Marcus' satisfaction. She is the personification of immorality.
Marcus' mother - who is a strong, viral figure - visits him in hospital and
recognizes this immediately. Olivia's immorality is displayed to the world
by means of a scar on her wrist, the result of a suicide attempt. Philip
Roth then makes much of comparing this with the method of slaughtering
animals according to the rules laid down by kosher
ritual. An extremely unpleasant and upsetting subject! Towards the end
of this self-righteous book, Roth also exposes the homosexuality of one of
the other Jewish students at Winesburg. The indignation - narrated as an
orgy of bodily discharges - is even greater than that displayed towards
For me, this was a most unpleasant book to read,
particularly having just read Sylvia Plath's magnificent The
Looking at this short summary of the life and work
of Alan Sillitoe, we see that he has had a tremendous output of books. I
just took this one out of the library, more or less at random. It was
published in 1984, and in that year alone he published three books. In fact
he averaged about two per year, but now in his old age he seems to be
slowing down to just one every couple of years. Despite this, and in marked
contrast to that marvel of prolificacy, Joyce Carol Oats, this book is
The narrator, Paul Morton, is a seventeen year old
factory youth in Nottingham. It is the summer of 1945. The war is over in
Europe, but it drags on a bit in Japan. Paul has already enlisted and is
hoping to be accepted by the RAF and then to go flying all over the place.
The future is full of possibilities. Who would think that the euphoria of
victory would quickly be replaced by a dirty little war in Malaysia?
Certainly not Paul. He is worried about the result of his TB test. Many
people he knows have succumbed to tuberculosis. But his thoughts are mainly
centered on a girl he met while doing a stint as a cadet at the RAF base at
Stafford. Her name is Alice Sands. And so he decides to take a week off from
work and bicycle over to Stafford to see Alice. Does she really love him?
Does he love her? The excitement and hopes of the young seventeen year old!
Reading the sketch of the life of the author, we think
that all of this is very much autobiographical. But not completely so. Alice
brings along a girlfriend, Gwen, who gets totally in the way, and so Paul
heads off on his own, on a short bicycle circuit of Middle England. He stays
in youth hostels with 20 beds in the room and half drunken, loudly snoring
truck drivers and other wanderers in the other beds. Each bed has a bed pan
beneath it, which the traveler is expected to clean out himself the next
morning before leaving. But Paul meets up with other young bicyclists and
passes the time with much story-telling, and speculations about the
characters of other people, and the places along the way. And all sorts of
surprises to fill the dreams of the youthful wanderer.
Then Part Two is 38 years later, in 1983. Paul is a
successful writer of stories and screenplays for TV. Somehow he is still in
love with Alice, or with the memory of Alice. And he drives his car along
the same circuit which he had traversed with his bicycle all those years
ago. He tries to find the places he stayed, but they are no longer there,
obliterated by time and the progress of modern life. A stretch of road which
had taken him a whole day to travel on his bicycle can be driven in an hour
in a car. He finds out that Alice married a wonderful man and left with him
to live a prosperous, fulfilled life in Canada. And he can only contrast
this with his own life, alone now after three divorces. In the end he turns
the car quickly back onto the motorway to return to London, away from the
hopes of his past.
In this, the story departs from the life of the author.
Alan Sillitoe married the woman he loved, the poet Ruth Fainlight, in 1955,
when he was 27 years old, and they remain happily married to this day.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The atmosphere of England
in 1945; the value of money and of work in those days, and the details of a
bicycle tour. I remember Alan Sillitoe's Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning. I also remember the film. But I didn't
see The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Also I don't
remember reading that book. Perhaps I'll read it now.
Just this summer we decided to do a bicycle tour
ourselves, for the first time in more than 30 years. My old bicycle is over
20 years old - with those old mountain-bike tires. I thought it still goes
all right - I rode it almost every day into the Faculty - but we decided to
get new trekking bikes for the tour. What a change! Doing 100 km in a day
was an easy and pleasant ride. Down the Ems river and back up the Weser.
There are bicycle paths everywhere, leading past all sorts of interesting
places. One sees so much more than when driving in a car! And the nights are
spent in comfortable hotels. Apparently even the youth hostels these days
are hotels with single and double rooms, including an en-suite bathroom.
This is another book of Jean Rhys' short stories.
It was first published in 1968. There are two parts. The first half is
titled "Tigers are Better-looking", and it is a collection of eight stories
which she had published in various magazines in the 1960s, one of which also
has this title. The second half is a selection of ten stories from her first
book, "The Left Bank", which appeared in 1927.
The more recent stories from the first half of the book
are often rather bitter, perhaps reflecting the hard knocks she had received
in life. She is particularly bitter when describing other women. She finds
them to be most cruel. The nasty taunts and gibes delivered not openly, but
behind ones back. This is a frequent theme, as is the theme of death. The
older stories from 1927 were written by a younger Jean Rhys, more prepared
to see lightness and happiness in some things, although even then, as a
young author trying to become established, she was still prepared to
describe the down side of life for us. Some of the stories from her later
years have a complicated formal structure, as does the last story from 1927,
"Vienne". (Of course what is meant here is Vienna, the capital of Austria.)
But as always, the elegant style of her writing is a joy to read.
I had thought that this book might be about
running. But it isn't really. In fact it is a book of short stories, the
first and longest of which provides the title of the book. There was a
famous movie made of the story many years ago, but I didn't see that, and I
hadn't read the book before. The story - of less than 50 pages - concerns a
juvenile delinquent in an English prison for youthful offenders. Apparently
such institutions were named "borstals". The hero is a thin 17 year old
youth who is training to take part in the cross-country running race between
the representatives (or inmates) of various English borstals. He believes
that the warden of his borstal, who gives him many privileges and exhorts
him to do his best, has invested a great deal of emotional baggage into the
possibility of his winning the race. Yet the hero, who suffers under the
English class system, being a member of the lowest - untouchable - caste,
hates the warden, and thus decides to purposely lose. Therefore, whereas
before he was able to go running freely out beyond the walls of the borstal,
afterwards he must serve out his sentence cleaning the toilets, carrying out
unpleasant tasks in the kitchen, and so forth. But at least the other
inmates of the borstal appreciate his gesture.
It was unclear whether or not the story reflected in any
way the experiences of the author. His entry
in the Wikepedia does not mention such an episode. Also it is not said that
he excelled in athletic achievements. On the contrary, it is said that he
suffered badly from tuberculosis, leaving him a disabled pensioner as a
young man. And anyway, the training program which the "borstal boy" in the
story followed involved nothing more than a 5 mile run, three times a week.
Even an old man such as I am is able to keep up with such a regimen as this
(although of course it would be expected that young people would run the 5
miles more quickly than old people).
The other stories had nothing to do with long distance
running. Instead they described various aspects of life in the lower classes
of English society in the 1940s and 50s. Many of the stories were quite
interesting. I thought that the last one was the best, "The Decline and Fall
of Frankie Buller".
The subject of this book is an extremely unpleasant
story. The troubles in Sri
Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon). Looking at the map of Sri Lanka, it
seems to be shaped like a large tear-drop, falling from India; the emotional
expression of a sad history of conflict and exploitation. Topographically,
it is half-connected to India by a chain of islands, but southwards, towards
the center of mass of the tear, the land rises steeply, symmetrically into
high mountains. Could it be that the whole island is nothing but a gigantic
The author, Michael Ondaatje, was born in Sri Lanka, but
he is now a Canadian. It is he who wrote the book The
English Patient - which I didn't read, but I did see the movie on
television. Somehow, at least judging by the movie, I was unable to find
much sympathy with the hero, namely the English Patient himself. He seemed
to me to be a rather overly self-centered character, and if the punishment
he received for his actions was horrible, still, that did not make for a
The present book is concerned with horrible things
happening not just to a single English Patient, but rather to thousands and
thousands of people. The heroine of the book is named Anil Tissera, a woman
of about 30 who grew up in Sri Lanka, but then moved to England, then the
United States. She became a specialist in forensic medicine. Thus she is one
of those people who go to Bosnia, or to Argentina, or whatever, to dig up
the skeletons of the people who "disappeared " in the horrible little wars,
or political messes, which engulfed those places. Then, by examining the
various fractures and deformities of the bones, the identity of the victims,
and methods of torture may be deduced. An extremely unpleasant subject!
Of course there is no reason for a reader in Western
Europe, or in North America, to dismiss such things as being the result of
behavior which only occurs in such distant places. Seventy years ago, the
Nazis produced an overabundance of such skeletons. Stalin, perhaps even
more. Going back to the Middle-Ages, and beyond, the stories of cruelty
multiply. And North America is littered with the bones of slaughtered native
In a nutshell, what happened in Sri Lanka is that during
the 19th century, the British transported large numbers of people from the
neighboring, southern province of India, which is called Tamil
Nadu, in order to work on the plantations of Sri Lanka. But the native
people of the island felt that the British were favoring these Tamils. Thus
after independence from Britain, the population which had thought themselves
to be under-privileged imposed linguistic and other problems on the Tamil
population. All of this has lead to much conflict and very real terror.
When reading the book, I got to thinking about Arthur
C. Clark, the science-fiction writer. As is well known, he emigrated
to Sri Lanka in 1956, and he seemed to be happy to live there, often placing
the island in the middle point of his stories. Only after reading the
article about him in the Wikipedia did I realize that besides his interest
in scuba-diving, the reason he chose to live in Sri Lanka was that he was
homosexual, and he found the atmosphere there to be more receptive to such
tendencies. I don't want to pursue the question of whether or not this
involved the exploitation of young Asian boys, but the fact is that he lived
on in Sri Lanka through all of the terror described in this book, up until
the time of his (natural) death in 2008. Thus, I suppose that at least for
Arthur C. Clark, the terror of Sri Lanka was not quite as intense as that
which is expressed in this book.
In the story, Anil works together with Sarath, a local
person who is an anthropologist. They dig up a skeleton representing,
presumably, a person who was murdered by some important people in the
government. Anil becomes inspired by the idea of identifying this victim,
and thus bringing the responsible people to justice. In the end, neither we
nor Anil finds out who it was, nor who did it. After a few frightening,
nightmarish experiences, she is evicted from the country, and Sarath himself
ends up as the anonymous victim of another torture-murder. Horrible!
Throughout the book, Ondaatje tries to convince us that
the history and traditions of Asia are deeper than those of Europe, despite
the fact that the people who would be most likely to read this book would be
more familiar with European history. Well, of course it is true that humans
have been living on the lands of Africa and Eurasia since the time of the
evolutionary emergence of the human species. Therefore in all of the various
regions of those continents there is an equally long history. So it seems to
me to be needlessly argumentative to waste ones energies on the question of
the superiority of one culture over another. Indeed, surely that is also the
cause of much terrible suffering in the world.
This is a short book, about Colin, a 12 year old
boy living in a town near the coast in England in the 1950s. His mother Viv
is a waitress in a night club in town. Colin was presumably conceived during
a random coupling with with one of many possible men back in the war years
of the 1940s. Thus he lives without a father, but he is desperate to find
out something about his father. Viv refuses to tell him. So he imagines that
his father was a wartime spy, flown in to some obscure landing field in the
French countryside in a Lysander
spy-plane, after which he is betrayed and killed. Or perhaps he himself is
part of this whole adventure. The novel alternates between Colin's life in
the English country town and his life of daydreaming about the French
Resistance and the Gestapo. These daydreams are as much a reality for him as
is his life with his mother Viv and all her working-class friends and
But to be honest, I wasn't really able to get very much
into this story. It was only due to the fact that the book is so short that
I was able to finish it.
It reminded me of my own time at school back in the 1960s
near the coast in southern New Jersey. It was a requirement that we had to
take classes in a foreign language, and the only foreign language on offer
was French. I had no ambition whatsoever to learn French back then, yet I
realized that I would have to pass the course. In order to do this, I found
that it was possible to memorize the 20 words set for the vocabulary test
during the bus ride to school, and then to achieve 100% on each such
vocabulary test. After the test, all was immediately forgotten, so that I
failed the rest of the non-vocabulary French tests. In the end, this
averaged out to a barely passing grade.
Perhaps some of the other school students were more
devoted to their studies. In any case the teacher was a very friendly French
woman who had immigrated to the United States some time after the Second
World War. We children soon discovered that it was a simple business to
divert the subject of the hour's lesson from unpleasant French vocabulary
and grammar to more interesting subjects. After a question or two, the
teacher spent the rest of the hour reminiscing about all of the experiences
of her family, hiding downed American aviators in the large, walled-in
garden of their house in the French countryside, before they were passed on
to the next link in the chain of the French Resistance.
Skeptical people have sometimes questioned the remarkable
fact that virtually the entire population of wartime France were active
members of the Resistance. While I do not question the sincerity of my
French school teacher, I must admit that the repetition of the imagined
exploits of the Resistance in France, as in this book, sometimes does become
A much better read than the previous book, but
still, in the end we are left with many loose threads, and we wonder how
they are to be tied together, or whether they are to remain dangling
uncomfortably until the time we can't be bothered to think about them any
more. Nevertheless it wasn't quite as bad as the reviewer
in the Telegraph makes it out to be.
The book was first published in 2003, and I suppose Pat
Barker was as dismayed as the rest of us to see that George W. Bush,
together with his sidekick, Tony Blair, really did go ahead with their plan
to kill hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Before they committed this horrible
act of terror, millions of people marched peacefully through the streets of
London, New York, Washington, and many other cities, protesting against what
we all thought was an enormous bluff. What a shock it was to see that it was
bitter reality! And so it seems to me that this book must have been Pat
Barker's method of coming to grips with the whole situation.
Stephen Sharkey is the main character. He was a war
correspondent, working often together with Ben Frobisher, a photographer.
Bosnia, Afghanistan, and what have you. In 2003, only "embedded"
propagandists of the corrupt "main stream media" were able to accompany the
invasion of Iraq, and by that time, Ben had been killed by a sniper in
Afghanistan and Stephen had decided to quit.
But before this time - somewhat improbably, considering
the lack of war at that time and place - both Steven and Ben happened to be
together in New York City on the day the sky-scrapers fell down. Thus,
serendipitously, Ben was able to take lots of interesting pictures of the
ruins, perhaps later to be examined in minute detail by the many
"911-researchers". The emotional impact of the day was increased for Stephen
when he rang his wife in England to tell her that he was OK, yet the fact
that England is placed way eastwards around the globe in comparison to the
position of New York meant that he woke her up in the middle of the night.
Thus the lover she was entertaining in her bed groaned, "Who's that!", which
Stephen overheard, leading to the long-overdue ending of the marriage.
So all of these momentous events lead to Stephen
retreating to an English country town where, coincidentally, both his
brother and also Beth, the wife - or widow - of Ben, live. Everybody seems
connected with the local Anglican Minister, Alec, whose life's work is the
rehabilitation of ex-convicts. Alec's 19-year old daughter, Justine, is a
kind of permanent baby-sitter for Stephen's brother's family. She has just
finished school and is forced into having a stay-at-home "gap year", owing
to glandular fever, or something. But, despite the fact that she is hardly
beyond the school-girl phase of life, she immediately enters into an intense
life of sex, alcohol, philosophical discussions of literature, the meaning
of life, and all that... with the jaundiced, middle-aged, about to be
Perhaps Pat Barker, as a woman, has a better idea
of the character of the 19 year old school-girl. But it seemed to me that
Sylvia Plath's description of the state of mind of a somewhat older
college-girl rang more true to life. In any case, having no particular idea
about such things, I decided to imagine that Justine was older - somewhere
around 25 to 30 years old - and so I was able to read on through the book,
feeling that it was an interesting and believable story.
Justine's earlier boyfriend was Paul, an ex-convict with
a disturbing past. He has literary ambitions and writes nasty little stories
about stalking, rape, murder. And Stephen is obsessed with a horrible vision
he has seen in Bosnia of a dead woman, lying in the staircase of a derelict
building, the victim of rape.
But now, in the English countryside of Tony Blair's
England, two men in a white van arrive at the lonely country house of
Stephen's brother. It is not the famous White Moving Van of 911-researcher's
fame. No. It is just burglars. Justine walks into the house by mistake. They
attack her. She receives deep cuts to the head, and so forth. But it is not
rape. Stephen, who has been walking on the nearby hills, sees the situation
and races to the rescue. He gives one of the burglars a tremendous whack on
the head and shoulders with one of his brother's bronze statues, trying to
kill him. But just at this exciting phase of events, at around page 240, the
disappointed reader sees that the book is all too quickly running out of
pages! There are only 258 pages, and Stephen and Justin simply drive over to
the coast, taking a boat trip out to the Farnes
Islands, where they admire the interesting bird life. Then they stay
in a hotel back on the coast where the book quickly ends with an account of
the transcendental experiences of Justine and Stephen sleeping together.
What is the moral of the story? War is bad?
Corresponding about war, or taking pictures of war is bad? Or is it bad to
sit at home, munching on potato crisps, sprawled on the sofa, watching the
television "news" which is filled with images of robot "drones" (some of
which are supposed to be human) killing native peoples halfway across the
globe, and then seeing them crying or angrily shouting at the camera? Or is
the story concerned with the moral differences between the act of rape and
the sexual exploitation of a school-girl by a burned-out, middle-aged man? I
have no idea.
But I do wish that Pat Barker had continued the story far
enough in order to tell us whether or not the ominous white van was driven
by that disturbing character Paul, or whether Paul was, indeed, innocent.
The story is concerned with the murder of a
character who is alternatively named Jock, or John, or Jeff Leigh, or Lewis,
or Leach, or something. He studied art in some college or other for a time,
but then he preferred studying women, or at least giving them a good time in
lieu of more arduous work. That is to say, he was on the lookout for women
with money, with an eye to taking some of it for himself. Not really a
gigolo, since the women were by and large in love with him and believed that
this was true love, marriage, and all the rest. Thus his need for frequent
changes of women, accompanied by alterations of his name.
It is a complicated, often funny story. While most of the
women are wealthy, pursuing successful careers, the exception is Minty, who
is a sad case. She is a bit crazy. She compulsively washes herself many
times each day, and washes everything else as well. She has inherited a
house, or whatever passes for a house in a run-down, crime-ridden London
street. Also £2,500, which wasn't much money when the book was first
published in 2001. She lives alone, working at the local dry-cleaning shop
where she does the ironing and enjoys the smell of all those poisonous
dry-cleaning chemicals. She also loves the smell of all the other chemicals
which she uses to clean her small "house". She has been so rash as to boast
to the neighbors and the local shop-keepers that she has inherited great
Jeff, or Jock, or whatever he calls himself, hears this,
and so attaches himself to poor Minty. He only succeeds in making away with
the £2,500. He tries to get Minty to take out a mortgage on her house, but
she resists, and so she receives a notice, saying that he has died in the
London train crash of 1998, or whenever it was. Of course he wrote it
himself in order to rid himself of Minty. Unfortunately, Minty seems to be
suffering from various abnormalities. Soon the ghost of Jock begins visiting
her. She is afraid. How to rid herself of this ghost?
She seems to have schizophrenia; that is, she confuses
the voices in her head with voices in the external world. A frightening
disease. But she also has visual hallucinations, seeing Jock as well as
hearing him. I have read that such visual hallucinations are quite rare, and
are not normally experienced by schizophrenics.
In any case, she resolves to rid herself of this
frightening ghost by stabbing it with a knife. She flails out into thin air
a number of times, being unable to kill the hallucination. But then, on a
visit to the movies (a ghost movie with loud screams, masking the real
screams), she sees another apparition of Jock, and stabs it. It seems to
collapse satisfactorily in its ghost blood, hopefully leaving Minty in
peace. But in the real world - not the crazy world of Minty's mind - she did
actually murder Jock, or whatever his name was.
So then the story becomes an amusing comedy on the
consequences of all this, particularly as applied to the various other women
in Jock's, or John's or Jeff's life. It almost reminded me of parts of Henry
Fielding, where you really have to laugh. But somehow, the sadness of poor
Minty's condition stifled this humor, and in the end, she is put away into
some psychiatric institution where, perhaps, she will be better able to cope
with life. The other characters, who at first seemed to become overwhelmed
with the ridiculous consequences of the whole thing, end up liberated; freed
of the hang-ups they had had which brought them into the story in the first