& Dark Tides
in Spain & Mefisto
Book of Evidence
The Silver Swan
Elegy for April
A Death in Summer
Flower and the Secret Fan
Peel, a Biography
Pepys, The Unequaled Self
Betrayed exploited and forgotten
as Mystical Fact and the Mysteries of Antiquity
L. Barlett and James B. Steele:
Hughes: His Life & Madness
Behind the Legend
The Man Behind the Myth
and Juliet are Sandro Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci
Bodies of Others
and Jill Went Downhill
Thomas Wallace Knox:
Kathryn S. Olmsted:
John Lord Griffin:
Devotion of Subject X
James Fenimore Cooper:
Pilot: A Tale of the Sea
Post Captain and H.M.S. Surprise
Feminism: The Secret History of Women's Liberation
all the Way Down
Lie & The Summer Holidays Survival Guide
und seine Töchter
These are two books, the second of which is a
continuation of the first, thus making two parts of a single story. In
Tidelands the time is 1648. Oliver Cromwell is in charge of his New Model
Army, forging a New Normal for England. The King, Charles, has been arrested
and is being confined - more or less - to a house on the Isle of Wight. From
there he appeals to the Scots, the Welsh, perhaps even the Irish, to take up
arms against the New Model Army to defend his God-given position as divine
leader of England. On the "Continent" the Peace of Westphalia has just been
agreed, ending the Thirty Years War. All of this is usually represented as
being a matter of religious fanatics killing one another; an example of
"mass formation psychosis". But was this true? Was it really a psychosis
similar to the madness we are living in today which is driven by the
irrational idea that Death can be conquered by injecting magic scientific
potions into the body every few months? And did all those people around the
time of 1648 kill each other merely because they had different ideas about
what is the true doctrine to tell us what we should expect to find after
Death? The story in this book gives us a different perspective. Accordingly
it was a matter of the masses of normal people revolting against the
injustice of those days. The fact that everything was owned by a few
oligarchs - the aristocracy. The normal people "owned nothing and were not
happy". Such is the background to the story of these books.
We are concerned with simple folk living in a fictional
place called Sealsea Island which we are told is such that Chichester is
about 8 or 10 miles to the north. Looking at the map I see that there is a
real-life town named Selsey on the south coast of England about 10 miles
south of Chichester. However Selsey is not an island, nor is it a tideland,
being situated behind a well-defined beach and consisting of summer
cottages. Perhaps we should think slightly to the west, for example Thorney
Island, near the Chichester harbor and yacht club.
The heroine is Alinor, a woman in her mid 20s with two
children in their early teens. (Things progressed rapidly in those days!)
Her husband, a fisherman, disappeared a year ago, leaving her practically
destitute, dressed in rags, living on meager portions of thin gruel. She
also serves as a midwife to the peasants of the island. Suddenly, in the
middle of the night, James, a finely dressed gentleman in his early 20s
appears, asking for help. She leads him to the house of the local squire,
Sir William Peachey. We discover that James has been transported over from
France where he has become a Catholic priest and a member of a monastery.
His mission is to conduct secret and private masses in the castles of those
aristocrats who have not rejected popery. Also he is to organize an escape
for King Charles, finding a ship to carry him from the Isle of Wight to his
remaining admirers in France. All of this falls through. But at least James
falls madly in love with Alinor, and she with him.
During a few days of torrid sex a baby is conceived. Also
in another thread of the story, Alinor's precocious daughter Alys has become
pregnant to the local farmyard hero. James travels away on his important
mission, promising to return to carry Alinor away. He is in London,
observing the legal process against King Charles and the subsequent
beheading. Upon his return, Alinor, who has suddenly discovered her own
pregnancy, tells James. He is dumbfounded. - Perhaps in those days Catholic
priests were not informed about the Birds and the Bees. - He insists that
Alinor do something to get rid of it. She doesn't. And in the other thread
of the story, Alys steals the money for the dowry her lover's parents are
insisting upon. All of this leads to violent scenes and the accusation that
Alinor is a witch. James wants nothing to do with the whole business; Alinor
is subjected to a trial by dunking which she barely survives; Sir William
Peachey declares that she is thus not a witch; and finally Alys forces James
to give up a few coins, sufficient to enable both her and Alinor to escape
So ends the first book.
Therefore I thought it would be interesting to see how
things go on with the second book.
It is now 21 years later. Alinor and Alys have a small
warehouse on the south bank of the Thames. Suddenly James appears. He is Sir
James Avery, the owner of a huge mansion on The Strand as well as huge
properties and castles on his lands somewhere in the north of England. He
assumes that Alinor has borne a son which is his heir who has now come of
age. An interesting idea with the potential for producing further drama...
Unfortunately though, the author found it necessary to
tell three or four other, completely different stories in an endless series
of short chapters jumping back and forth between one and the next. We have
the brother of Alinor somewhere in the backwoods of New England, siding with
the Indians rather than with his fellow puritan settlers. This story had
absolutely nothing to do with the main story. Then there is a story of
intrigue and seduction in Venice and London. A hopeless mishmash. What a
It is 1612. Queen Elizabeth has been succeeded by
King James who, famously, wrote the book, Daemonologie, which is concerned with the
problem of witches. Indeed, the Witchcraft Act of 1542 deals with people
... use devise practise or exercise, or
cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons
of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to thentent to
fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in
his bodie membres...
Accordingly, in the modern world William Henry ("Bill") Gates III is a
witch. In Scotland witches were burned at the stake. In England they were
hanged; perhaps a more humane method of getting rid of them.
The book is concerned with the Lancaster witches. Twelve people were accused of
witchcraft. Of those, 10 were hanged, one died in prison, and one, Alice
Grey, was acquitted. All of these historical figures with their stories, as
related by Thomas Potts in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in
the Countie of Lancaster are characters in this novel, as is Thomas
Potts himself as well as the horrible magistrate Roger Nowell. The story is
built around a fictional character with a beautiful name: Fleetwood
Shuttleworth. She has not yet reached the age of twenty, but she has already
had three painful stillbirths. She is much in love with her husband,
Richard, as is he with her. They are the wealthy owners of extensive lands
and manor houses. Alice Grey is a poor, almost destitute woman who is a
midwife, gathering herbs and other plants to help women through the travails
of pregnancy. And thus a dramatic story develops with Fleetwood saving Alice
who helps her with her pregnancy.
I enjoyed the last one so much that I thought I'd
try another of the stories of Stacey Halls. As with the first, this is
inspired by an actual historical event. On the night of the 18th of
September 1896, Charles Albert Browne threw two of his daughters 75 meters
down into the waters below the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Both survived. The elder
daughter, Ruby, suffered no lasting physical injuries (but see the previous
book: The Body Keeps the Score for an account of the
mental injuries, particularly given that it was her father), while the
younger daughter, Elsie, was partially paralyzed. The father was put into
the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, but then we are told that he was
discharged into the care of his wife in 1899. Imagine the horror this would
have been for the poor girls, always knowing that their father could strike
again at any time in the middle of the night. Thankfully in the story of the
book, the author has the father dying in the lunatic asylum. But
nevertheless, Ruby, whose last name has become May, continues to suffer the
We only learn about all of this towards the end of the
book. Ruby has graduated from a posh college for nurses. So she is Nurse
May. However she does not work in a hospital handing the surgeons their
gleaming instruments, or caring for the patients lying in their beds.
Instead she has been trained to look after the children of wealthy families,
wearing the stylish uniform associated with the college. We are told that
she is not a "nursemaid". Looking it up in the Wikipedia I see that a nursemaid is considered to be inferior, or assistant
to, a more senior "nurse". This more senior grade of childminder is also
known as a "nanny". And then we have the idea of a governess, someone who is expected to not only look
after the children of the rich, but to teach them as well. Judging from the
writings of the Brontë sisters, such a role, teaching rich little brats,
must have been horrible. But in this book everything is sweetness and loving
care, with the four children of the England family loving and worshiping
Nurse May above everything else.
Getting started in the book we wonder about the strange
behavior of Mrs. England and the almost overly friendly reception by Mr.
England. They own a cotton mill somewhere in the north of England. I forget
exactly the time of the story, but it must be sufficient for Ruby to have
grown up after the trauma of 1896 and gotten through college, so perhaps it
would be around 1905. Mrs. England's parents and grand parents have much
more extensive textile factories than that of the England family, and they
live in huge mansions. But they seem strangely cold and reserved. What are
the hidden secrets? How will it all end?
The time of the story is 1747, and then a couple of
years afterwards in 1752, so it is placed half way between the two previous
novels. This time there seems to be no particular historical event forming
the basis of the story, and perhaps for this reason it feels contrived and
We learn about the Foundling Hospital; there is a map of London at the
beginning of the book, showing us where it was located. My Kindle does not
make a good job of displaying such illustrations so I found a better map of London online, showing the whole situation.
This is John Rocque's Map of 24 sheets, and we find the Foundling Hospital,
seeming to be smaller than the description given to us by Stacey Halls, when
double-clicking for magnification on sheet C1. It was out in the fields to
the north of town. Of course in modern London, sheet C1 is the middle of the
city, in Bloomsbury, and the Foundling Hospital has been replaced by the
The idea was that babies of destitute mothers might,
depending on a lottery system, be admitted to the Hospital where they would
be looked after and then educated to the extent of becoming useful laborers
in the case of boys, or servants in the case of girls.
In the story of the book, a poor woman admires a handsome
young man from afar. She sees him entering a pub and lingers outside,
waiting for him. He takes her into a dark alley, lifts her skirts, inserts
himself and thus fathers a baby. She sees no more of the man but, being
secretly in love with him, learns that he has died. Nine months later she
gives the baby up into the Foundling Hospital. Five years after that she
wants to retrieve her daughter. It turns out that the baby had been
retrieved by the wife of the father of the baby the day after it was given
up. This wife, or widow, lives as a recluse, suffering from post traumatic
stress disorder induced by having seen both her parents shot dead by
highwaymen when she was a small child. And so she confined the child to a
close isolation. But then our heroine, the actual mother, managed to become
the nursemaid to the child. Immediately, without knowing the truth of her
parentage, the young girl falls totally under the influence, the love, of
the nursemaid - her biological mother - and she hates her false, apparent
mother. And we are continually confronted with the discrepancy between the
inherited wealth of the false mother and the grinding poverty of the true
mother. What is to be the fate of the child? Such is the story. There are
further contrived twists to the plot. The young doctor who is the director
of the Foundling Hospital is in love with the false mother (or is it only
her wealth?) despite the fact that she is depicted as being an unpleasant
monster. All of this was rather a let-down, particularly since I had enjoyed
the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth and the Lancaster Witches.
I've been reading lots of books written by women,
probably for women, and so I was in the mood to read something more
masculine. Something by Jack London. I must have read The Call of the Wild
many years ago, but if so I have completely forgotten about it. I do
remember having read John Barleycorn. There the author tells us about his
alcoholism, describing in great detail the depravity of it all. A disturbing
and unsettling book. Looking at the pictures of Jack London in his Wikipedia article and reading about
his life we do not see an aggressive, brutal, masculine figure in the style
of an Ernest Hemingway. He had sensitive features. The Klondike Gold Rush
was a catastrophe for him. His California ranch was a failure. But he seemed
to be always in search of adventure and this led to him becoming an
extremely successful author.
The story of the book starts off with Humphrey Van
Weyden, a literary critic, on a ferry in San Francisco Bay, traveling from
Sausalito across the Golden Gate back to the city. Of course the bridge had
not yet been built when the book was published in 1904. There is a thick
fog, and he speaks with his neighbor who tells him how dangerous this is.
Suddenly the ferry is struck by another ship and sinks. Humphrey is in the
freezing water, lost in the fog, drifting out to sea. A schooner passes by
and picks him up. They are going across the Pacific to Japan and the seal
hunting grounds. The captain is Wolf Larson. Humphrey expects to be put
ashore, or at least transferred to a passing ship returning to San
Francisco. He is prepared to pay a great amount of money for the service.
But Larson refuses. He laughs at Humphrey, calling him "Hump", telling him
that he should learn to earn his own living rather than just living off
society using the money that his father has left him.
Larson turns out to be a brutal character, murdering
sailors on a whim. But he is self-educated and widely read. Humphrey and
Larson have long conversations, disputes on philosophy. Is the human
condition characterized by finer, moral values, or is the only purpose of
life the satisfaction of ones own desires, regardless of what brutalities
those desires might involve? Various philosophers are bandied about. In
particular Nietzsche plays a role.
Somewhere about the house we have a dusty old volume of
the works of Nietzsche, printed in a fraktur typeface. But I decided to
download Also Sprach Zarathustra from Project Gutenberg. For the
last few years, gutenberg.org has been blocked in Germany owing to the fact
that some German publisher claimed the rights to some sort of ancient book,
and started litigation. But thankfully that must have been resolved since
the blockage has now been lifted.
I have now made it through the first part of Zarathustra.
Rather heavy going. For lighter relief I have started on another of Jack
London's books. Zarathustra
(or Zoroaster) was thought to have lived over 3000 years ago and is
considered by some to be the first philosopher in history. In Nietzsche's
version he begins by emerging from his cave and standing in the light of the
sun. He descends from the mountains to teach humanity. His first lecture is
to the inhabitants of a mountain village. He speaks about the will to live,
the striving for success, but this did not go down well and he was kicked
out of town. Then there follows a long sequence of short chapters on various
aspects of life and of people. Lots of disjointed ideas, saying one thing
and another, often seemingly unrelated to one another. I see that there have
been various translations into English, but I can hardly imagine how that
would be possible. For example think of translating Finnegan's Wake into
some other language. You would end up inventing a jumble of language which
has a more or less tenuous relation to the original. And with Also
Sprach Zarathustra we have a language and a world which has changed
beyond all recognition in the time since it was published in the 1880s.
For example the word "Übermensch" is usually translated
into English as the word "Superman". We think of Clark Kent, donning his
costume and jumping over skyscrapers. Or we think of Nazis and concentration
camps. In the present book Wolf Larson is taken as an example of such an
Übermensch. In contrast Humphrey Van Weyden is a civilized "Normal-mensch".
But all of this is not really what Nietzsche is saying. Übermensch is not
particularly a word in the German language. But Untermensch is. That is
someone who is down-trodden, hopeless, poor. And yes, also someone who is
subhuman. A Nazi would apply the term to Jewish people, Africans, even
Asians. But that was not the case with Nietzsche. For him, becoming an
Übermensch was an uplifting idea, raising oneself to a higher level of
existence. Of course I really have no time or inclination for vague
philosophical thoughts. But I do plan on gradually making my way to the end
of Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is true that there is a kind of
rhythm to the language. Nietzsche was a friend of Wagner, and he imagined
that some of his text could be set to music. And of course we have the
wonderfully inspiring settings of Mahler and Strauss.
Finally the schooner reaches the hunting grounds off
Japan. They encounter a small boat filled with people who have been
shipwrecked. Most are sailors, but there is also a lady, Maud Brewster. And
they are also kidnapped by Wolf Larson. She is a poet and it turns out that
she knows of Humphrey and he of her. There are literary conversations, with
Larson an amused listener. After various dramatic moments, Humphrey and Maud
escape in one of the ship's boats. They fight storms, nearly drowning, but
eventually, after what seems like weeks, being driven by the wind and the
seas, they happily drift into a protected cove within a larger cove on a
deserted island, perhaps somewhere along the Aleutian chain. They begin to
survive and to fall in love with one another. But then one day, the derelict
schooner happens to drift into exactly the same cove within a cove on this
same remote island. This is as ridiculous a twist of the plot as is that in
(Jack London - and also Charlotte Brontë - should have
thought through what they were going to write before getting lost in such
Anyway, the ship is deserted except for Larson, who seems
sick. He tries to kill them, without success. He dies himself, and Humphrey
and Maud, having repaired the ship, disappear into the sunset, living
happily ever after.
It is said that the character of Wolf Larson was based on
the real life character of someone named Captain Alexander McLean. But surely if a captain of such a
wild hunting ship, filled with brutal hunters and tough sailors, terrorized
and murdered one after the other of the crew, then he would himself have
been quickly murdered. After all, even an Übermensch like Larson would have
to sleep and be vulnerable to a knife in the back or some other method of
dispatching him, thus proving the falsity of this interpretation of
A rough young man, Martin Eden, on the ferry from
San Francisco to Oakland, sees someone being attacked by ruffians. He steps
in with his fists, coming to the aid of the stranger. And so he is invited
to the house of the Morse family for dinner. They are of a finer class. The
father is a rich lawyer, the brother whom Martin has saved is a student at
the University of California at Berkeley, as is the daughter, Ruth. Martin
sways in with his seaman's gait, feeling awkward in his muscular, working
mans body and clothes, embarrassed by his halting, grammatically challenged
speech full of slang and double-negatives, and he is bowled over by the
beauty and refinement of Ruth. Yet all are thankful that he has saved the
brother, and they listen eagerly to his seaman's yarns of his travels about
the Pacific and his visits to foreign lands. Ruth is both repelled and
fascinated by his muscular strength. She says in parting that he should call
again. And so a deep relationship develops between Martin and Ruth. She
teaching him to speak English properly, he burying himself in books, seeking
self-improvement, reading, writing, studying all day, allowing himself only
5 hours sleep each night and even resenting this time away from his studies.
Within a short time he speaks correctly, at least
according to the standards of Ruth and the Morse family, and he has mastered
literature and philosophy to the extent of being able to talk down to a
professor of something or other from Berkley who is visiting the Morse
household. Martin's ambition is to become a famous best-selling writer,
dashing off novels, poems, critical essays, and gathering in huge royalties.
He produces reams of manuscripts, sending them off to one magazine after the
other. And he is astonished to find that they are rejected. Everything is
rejected. Yet he knows that what he has produced is better than the stuff
which fills those magazines.
He has no income, despite working 19 hours each day. This
is all for Ruth; he imagines that when he becomes rich and famous they will
marry. Ruth is also in love and would like to marry him, but she sees that
his writing is leading nowhere. Martin pawns his bicycle, his good suit; he
often goes hungry; Ruth's father offers him a position as clerk in his
office. He should get a real job. But Martin knows that he is superior to
all that. He insults the father and a visiting judge with arrogant
philosophical posturings. He is rejected by the family, and Ruth tells
Martin that it is all over between them.
Unexpectedly, a manuscript is accepted and he receives 5
dollars. It was a long manuscript. He had read somewhere that magazines pay
2 cents per word, but counting the number of words in his manuscript he
realizes that he is only getting a tenth of a cent. Or something. Then
another manuscript is accepted and he is promised 40 dollars, but the money
never comes. An empty promise. He is disillusioned. He gives up writing.
Wandering back to the slums of Oakland he meets his old crowd and a true
woman, Lizzy, who loves him beyond anything. But he is no longer part of
them. Gradually more and more of his old manuscripts are accepted. Money
starts to roll in. He is rich and famous. Ruth now wants to marry him; the
mother is suddenly friendly. But Martin asks why? He is the same person as
before. These are the same manuscripts which everybody rejected when he was
poor and half starving. The world is false and meaningless. (But why didn't
he go back to poor Lizzy?) He takes a cruise into the Pacific on a luxury
steamer and in the middle of the night drops silently into the ocean,
The moral of the story? Riches and Fame don't make you
I wondered how much of this was autobiographical. Jack
London didn't drown himself, but he did die at the age of 40, overdosing on
morphine, perhaps a suicide. Particularly at the end of the book, Nietzsche
is referred to, and during Martin's arrogant rants, Nietzsche's philosophy
is propounded. I am still slowly reading through Also Sprach Zarathustra.
My mistake at first was to think of reading it smoothly, from page to page.
The chapters are short and the sentences are clear and concise. But often,
at least at first, they seem to give little sense. It is perhaps a kind of
poetry in prose. There is an iconic picture of Nietzsche, a drawing of the
ill philosopher taken from a photograph after he had become insane, just
before his death. His insanely huge mustache and sunken eyes. But as a
younger man he was quite handsome. He became a professor of classics at the
University of Basel when he was 24 years old. And he did not look like a
Along with thousands, if not millions of other
teenagers back in the early 1960s, I was in love with the actress Hayley
Mills. I must have watched the movies she made with Walt Disney. Later,
perhaps much later when it was shown on TV, I saw Tiger Bay, her
first movie. Then when visiting Plymouth for various weeks ten years ago, I
remembered that first film and so got the DVD. What a delight it was to
again see the 12 year old Hayley Mills playing opposite Horst Buchholz. In fact Hayley Mills tells us in this
book that she was secretly, totally in love with Horst, and she dreamed that
perhaps in 10 years when she had grown up they might make a sequel to Tiger
Bay with the character of Horst Buchholz, now 35 years old, being released
from prison to fall in love with the mature 22 year old Gillie, and then in
real life Hayley and Horst would marry and live happily ever after. Tiger Bay has been made available in its full length
on YouTube. A wonderful film, not to be compared with the childish kitsch of
We are told of her feelings for Walt Disney. He was
almost a second father for her. Whatever else one might say about him, he
certainly was a man of high moral standards, far different from the sleazy
Hollywood figures we read about who are only too eager to exploit those
under them. For Hayley Mills the Disney studios were a second family. At the
end of her exclusive contract with them she was offered a further contract.
She was now about 18 and thinking of other roles.
Earlier, when she was 14 she had been offered the role of
Lolita in Stanley Kubrik's film, but Disney refused to let her have it. She
very much regretted this. She herself was feeling the emotions, the
awkwardness of entering puberty, and she could imagine a Humbert Humbert.
(But really, Sue Lyon, the actress who played the role was much more in
character, despite what Hayley Mills might have felt.) Instead she was
allowed to star in an independent, black and white British film, Whistle
Down the Wind, based on a story written by her mother. The story takes
place in the rural north of England. A girl, played by Hayley, discovers an
injured man hiding in the family barn. He is a murderer. She asks him who he
is. He exclaims, "Jesus Christ" to express the hopelessness of his
situation. So she believes he is the biblical Christ, tells lots of other
children, they flock to see him, but in the end he is taken away by the
police. We are told that the film was a great success in England and also in
America. As with Tiger Bay, it can be freely seen in YouTube. I find it difficult to
understand the critical praise it received back then. The Lolita-like Hayley
Mills, at 14, is much taller than all the other little children in the film
who are perhaps between 7 and 10 years old. It is simply unbelievable that a
14 year old girl could be so silly. At least the children playing her
brother and sister fitted into their roles.
Then when she was 18 or 19 and free of Disney contracts
she was in The Family Way. Again an independent British film, in
color this time, the north of England, but in a dreadfully small, almost
claustrophobic, working class house in a dreary, dirty city. The story is
that she marries the son of the family; the money for the honeymoon has been
stolen, and so they exist in small rooms with paper-thin walls, surrounded
by the rude conversations of everybody. In this situation the newly married
husband is unable to consummate the marriage. Eventually the brother, or
somebody else, does. There is even a fleeting nude scene. I remember going
to the movies and seeing the film as a student back then and feeling that
she had somehow violated whatever it was that we had felt for her. And in
the book she tells us about all of her feelings when making the film. She
even thought of suicide, closing her eyes, putting her foot down on the
accelerator and driving her car off the road. But she did not manage to kill
herself. Instead the car ran softly into a bush, and so she reversed out and
drove back to the studio. Back in those student days I read that she had
married someone who was more than 30 years older than she was. She was no
longer a lovable little girl.
In fact by the time she tells us about her marriage to
Roy Boulting, the book is almost at an end. She mentions the forgettable
films and not so forgettable stage performances which came later, but that
is no longer part of being "Forever Young". The marriage to Boulting did not
last long. She had a son with him (it was his 5th or 6th son, and his fourth
marriage). She never married again, having another son with somebody else,
and for the last 20 years her partner has been a very pleasant looking man
who is 20 years younger than she is. She tells us that she was very close to
Andrew Birkin, someone her age, the brother of Jane, even in love with him, but she was afraid of
losing him if they were to marry.
She tells us about all the famous actors and actresses
she worked with: "Larry" Olivier, "Dicky" Attenborough, and so on. They are
all sweet, wonderful. Filming a big movie, the cast and the production team
are all intimately together for months at a time, becoming great friends,
telling stories, jokes. Or being part of a traveling stage production for
weeks and months is an even more totally fulfilling emotional experience.
Yet when the film is finished or the play has come to an end, everybody has
a farewell party, they go their own ways, and there comes an emptiness.
Thankfully Hayley Mills, at now 75, has retained her youthful, even
childlike optimism and her love for her children and grandchildren.
We imagine those famous Hollywood actors living in their
mansions in Beverly Hills, or out in Malibu, throwing extravagant parties,
driving exclusive, expensive cars, enjoying all their riches. But
unfortunately this is not the case with child actors. Their parents have
control of the money. For example we are told that Shirley Temple, the
darling of the 1930s, upon reaching 21 and being allowed to take control of
her finances, discovered that only $10,000 remained. Her parents had spent
all the rest. The situation with Hayley Mills was different. Her father was
himself a famous actor with no time for all that paperwork, and so he simply
left everything to the family lawyer. Often a dangerous policy!
The family lawyer was a comfortable, established man with
pleasant offices in London. He was welcomed into the family home. A father
figure and an intimate friend of the family. He took his 2 or 3% or more,
year for year, all very proper. Hayley Mills received £10,000 for each of
her 6 films with Disney. In today's devalued money that would be about
$200,000 per film. Invested sensibly between 1960 and 1967 it should have
given say two million of today's dollars. On her 21st birthday she went
happily into the offices of the family lawyer, having given little thought
to all of her earnings until then. They gave her a thick manila envelope
from the British tax authorities, informing her that everything was to be
taxed at the rate of 95%!! Adding to that the fees taken out by the lawyer,
she was in fact deeply in debt as a reward for all her work as a child. Such
was the rapacious Labour Government of Harold Wilson's Britain. For some
obscure reason which she doesn't explain in the book, if the lawyer had
taken some action before her 21st birthday then this tax would not have
applied. Roy Boulting advised her to sue the lawyer, but how could she do
that? Instead she followed the advice of the lawyer, contesting the tax in
the courts, one appeal after the other up to the High Court, and even in the
end to the House of Lords which was the ultimate authority. At each stage of
the litigation the lawyer's fees increased, as did Hayley Mills' debts
proportionately. The end result was that she lost. But she put this behind
her and went on with life.
We start off with a man and a woman on holiday in
the town of San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. Gradually we learn
that he is Irish, a drinker, and a pathologist in Dublin. His wife is a
psychiatrist, Jewish, having fled from the Nazis. It is some time in the
late 1950s or early 1960s. While drinking in one of the local bars he spots
what he believes to be a familiar face, someone from the past, but he can't
quite place her, and so an elaborate story develops. The mysterious woman
was supposed to have been killed years ago by her brother who himself
committed suicide. She belongs to a powerful political dynasty in Ireland
with family secrets. The fact that the woman is living secretly in Spain, if
known, would lead to the downfall of the family. And so a killer is
organized to get rid of her.
How does a prominent family go about eliminating an
unwanted member? Obviously I have no idea at all. But if for example we were
to take at face value some of the various lines of speculation concerning
the death of Princess Diana, then it would seem that there exist agencies
within the tentacles of government to deal with such a situation on a
professional level. Did there exist such things in Ireland in the 1950s and
60s? Who knows? In any case the killer in the story is just an isolated
little man with a troubled childhood who happens to have randomly come to
the attention of the civil servant who has been assigned the task of dealing
with the situation. We follow the killer about, getting to know his feelings
for things, his lack of plans, the spontaneity of his actions. And we follow
all the other characters as well.
Wonderfully elegant writing, often amusing. A great book.
After finishing April in Spain, I looked for
something else by John Banville. It seems that he has written a whole series
of these detective stories. But then I saw that he had also written a book
which was said to be based on mathematical ideas, Mefisto, and so I downloaded that. What a
disappointment! It was a long-winded narrative of a character doing one
thing and another, each of these things being irrelevant to the further
development of whatever plot there was, and all being described in tedious
detail. The character was supposed to be interested in mathematics. A few
unrelated and often falsely used mathematical words are thrown in. I plodded
through to the end of Part 1, hoping it might improve. And I even got
halfway through Part 2 before giving up. The character is interacting with
some sort of strange computer, reflecting the fantasies of science fiction
authors of the 1930s. Yet the book was first published in 1986, a time when
the author would have been aware of the reality of personal computers. The
title of the book reminds us of the Faust Legend. Whether or not the book had anything to do
with that was not apparent.
I wonder if the author, having arrived with all the rest
of us in the year 2022, has grasped the truly diabolical nature of
computers. We are now expected to carry around with us these horrible little
objects which are filled with various features, doing who knows what,
capable of spying on our every activity, and which are necessary for proving
that certain aspects of our bodily activities satisfy the given norm. A new
kind of pact with the Devil.
Snow, by John Banville
Undeterred by the previous book, I read another
detective story by John Banville. This time we have a Catholic priest being
murdered in a run-down stately home of the earlier Protestant aristocracy in
rural Ireland in 1957. I wonder if Banville himself is a Protestant. The
story develops in the style of Agatha Christie. But before the halfway point
it diverges from that style since by then it becomes clear to the reader
"who done it". It was again a beautifully written story, but the theme is
The aristocracy of the Catholic Church, all those
bishops, cardinals, popes, continue today to reside in the their palaces,
surrounded by riches. Yet unlike 1957, they are now openly confronted with
the corruption and sins which were committed in those days. Undoubtedly in
another 50 years - around 2075 - the bishops, cardinals, popes of the
future, residing in their palaces, enjoying their riches, will apologize for
the corruption and sins which are being committed today. This is not to say
that I would favor one particular religion over another. But it was a very
overdue reform which was enacted by Martin Luther back in 1517 when he
declared that priests should be allowed to marry.
Modern popular culture is obsessed with sexuality. And so
the question naturally arises as to why a young man would voluntarily enter
into a closed male society in which the rule of celibacy is enforced. I am
sure that it is not the case that all Catholic priests are homosexual. And I
know that not all homosexuals are pedophiles, just as I know that not all
heterosexuals are pedophiles. Nevertheless the victim of the murder in this
story was a Catholic priest who 10 years before this time, in 1947, was one
of the Catholic brothers responsible for an institution for delinquent boys.
And in a disgusting chapter he describes his feelings of euphoric religious
exultation while thrusting himself into the anus of "his" defenseless,
trapped, 9 year old boy, watching him tremble, crying with pain, clutching
the alter. This troubled boy has grown up, turning into an awkward, bumbling
fool. He is the groom of the estate, and the priest, Father Tom, enjoys
hobnobbing with the upper classes, hunting, keeping his horse in the
The story is told through the experiences of Detective
Inspector Strafford. He is Protestant. But still he is summoned to an
audience with the high priest of Ireland. The Bishop or Archbishop or
whatever of Dublin or something. A very dangerous man who makes it crystal
clear to Strafford that he will be destroyed if the affair were to become
But beside all this religious darkness we learn much of
the other characters, making for an enjoyable read.
Mefisto, Banville's earlier book, had
little to do with Faust or mathematics despite the fact that such things
were advertised in the blurb. Thus I didn't expect this book to have much to
do with Newton. But he wasn't wholly absent. As is the case with many
people, a phase of intense creativity in young years is followed by a period
of stagnation later on. A mid-life crisis. Newton turned to the Bible,
imagining it to be a scientific treatise, written by God, which when
examined carefully would yield the secrets of the Universe. He also delved
into alchemy, mixing chemicals, poisoning himself, perhaps leading to
madness in later life, with the dream of amassing never ending golden
The hero of the present book is writing a biography of
Newton, concentrating on this interesting phase of his life. He has been
working on the book for seven years, but now he has realized that this
project is nothing more than useless nonsense, and so he has given up and
rented a place - what used to be the gatekeepers cottage - on a rundown
estate somewhere in the back woods of Ireland for the summer. And thus ends
all reference to Newton.
The remnants of the ancient aristocratic family consist
of two sisters, a child, and a man who may or may not be the husband of one
of the sisters. The less attractive one, the sister without the man, throws
herself at the hero, and they subsequently spend most of the summer together
in bed. The book is then concerned with philosophical observations on the
role of intimacy when dealing with persons one finds to be slightly
To be honest, I would have preferred to read about the
details of Newton's excursions into the realms of speculative religion and
the esoteric rather than this somewhat banal story.
Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Banville has written seven books under the
pseudonym Benjamin Black. These are crime stories involving Quirke, a
pathologist with a difficult background in the Dublin of the 1950s. The
first book of Banville which I read, April in Spain, was also a
Quirke book, but published under his real name. And then Snow is
also a crime novel, continuing the series, but the character of Quirke no
longer takes an active part. These books are completely different in style
from the two "serious" Banville books which I have read up to now. They are
fluent, direct, full of atmosphere. A style which would disgust the academic
judges of all those literary prizes. The rambling, train-of-thought writing
of the more serious Banville was indeed such that he received the Booker
Prize in 2005 for The Sea. But reading the reviews of that book
suggest that it would not appeal to me.
The present book is the seventh in the Quirke series. I
thought maybe I could read backwards through the series, ending up at the
first volume, Christine Falls. But then I suspect that the later
books reveal details which in the earlier books remained mysterious, thus
reading of consequences before knowing what the actions were which preceded
them. In this seventh volume, Quirke appears worn out, he suffers from a
knock on the skull which he received in a previous episode and he has been
convalescing for weeks at the home of his brother. The story involves a
closed Catholic institution, a kind of religious prison for unmarried
pregnant women whose babies are then sold off for adoption to Catholic
families in the United States. It starts off with a car crash, a murder, and
it ends with the killing of the evil figure behind all of this.
John Banville - in contrast to Tony Blair and other such
figures - is obviously no friend of the Roman Catholic Church.
The story follows, more or less closely, the
real-life murder of a young nurse in Dublin by Malcolm Edward MacArthur. The corresponding character
in the book is Freddie Montgomery. Unlike MacArthur, Freddie has actually
done some work in his life, having a position as a statistician in
California for a year or two. But essentially he is like MacArthur. The son
of an ancient Irish family, living off the remains of the estate until it is
bankrupted, leaving him with no means of support. In desperation he tries
stealing a painting from the mansion of a family who had bought his family's
paintings. It is a messy, sloppy business. A maid jumps into the backseat of
his getaway car, careening down the road. She hits him and he takes a hammer
and slams it into her skull two or three times, killing her. Then the book
is written as if it were a description of his life, written in prison,
explaining all the circumstances, imagining that he is writing this as
truth, a confession to be submitted to the court in order that an honest
judgement of his case and his life can be made. Many of the details parallel
that in the MacArthur case. All very sordid.
The fact that justice is not equal between the common
people and the members of the aristocracy is shown by the real-life
treatment given to MacArthur, who was "confined" in the luxurious Shelton Abbey prison where the inhabitants wile away
their time pursuing pleasant pastimes, for example golf, woodworking, arts
and crafts or pottery. MacArthur was released in 2012 after 30 years of this
comfortable life. It must have been a shock for him to reenter a world in
which he no longer had a comfortable hereditary income. Similarly, John
Banville has written two further books as a sequel to this one, describing
the descent of the hero, Freddie Montgomery into a life of degeneration and
crime after his release from prison. But reading the reviews of those books
makes me think that I've read enough of this story already.
It was nicely written, in the rambling, "serious" style
which caused it to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But somehow,
finishing a book like this with all the characters and events being
unpleasant, void of all redemption, is a depressing thing.
As mentioned before, Benjamin Black is the
pseudonym of John Banville when he is writing crime stories featuring the
character Quirke, a pathologist in a Dublin hospital. At the time I am
writing this, having read through three of the Quirke books, I have still
not discovered what Mr. Quirke's given name is. On the other hand, before
starting at the beginning of this series I had read the last episode, Even
the Dead, and there it is revealed who his true father is. Therefore
I know that his quirky last name is itself false, or a pseudonym. He was
deposited as an orphan in a cruel Catholic institution for destitute boys
before being "rescued" by the wealthy and powerful Dublin judge who poses
as his adoptive father.
Quirke is a heavy whisky drinker. He's always thinking
about it, feeling guilty and hungover after his prolonged drunken
episodes. He tells us he is not addicted to alcohol; it is a substitute
for his loneliness and regrets. But then after a period of drying out in a
Catholic institution for the correction of moral weaknesses, he recognizes
his alcoholism and resolves to become completely abstinent... A difficult
resolution in the alcoholic culture of Ireland. And then he smokes
continuously, even more so after giving up the drink. Everybody is
smoking. We are told of silver cigarette cases being stylishly flourished
about the place, and the ceremony of lighting up, flicking open a Zippo,
or even a silver or gold lighter. And then we have the different brands of
cigarettes. I've forgotten which brand Quirke favors. But the characters
are often described by the brands of cigarettes they smoke. Simple country
folk - including Inspector Hackett - smoke the rough cigarettes associated
with them, while the more refined classes of society have their own
brands. I wonder if these really were the brands of cigarettes which were
sold in Ireland in those days. I had never heard of them. They were not
the brands which dominated the world of advertising back in those days:
Marlborough, Camels, Benson & Hedges, and all that. And so the
dialogue in these stories is continuously punctuated with hacking coughs.
I'm enjoying reading these books describing the simple
depravities of Ireland in the 1950s. It is a pleasant way to divert the
mind from the much deeper depravities which are being imposed on us in the
2020s. I see that John Banville was born in 1945, just a year or two
before me. Surely this was the most optimal time here in Europe, and in
most of the world, to have been born and to have spent a lifetime. A time
of peace and freedom. Maybe it is true that every generation, upon
reaching old age, says that the world is falling apart. I hope this will
not be the case for the world our children and grandchildren will be
inhabiting, but things do not look good at the moment. And so it is
pleasant to go back to the world of the 1950s in these books, knowing that
it was the beginning of a wonderful time.
This is the first book of the series. An unmarried woman
dies after a difficult childbirth. An unpleasant business in the brutally
Catholic Ireland of the 1950s. And the woman who had attended her is
subsequently beaten to death. We learn that all of this is connected with an
association of horrible old men, the Knights of Saint Patrick. They accept
"fallen" women into their prison-like laundry where the women are forced to
work under the supervision of cruel nuns. The babies are then taken away and
transported to the United States where they are given to Irish Catholic
families, not to be adopted, but rather to be temporarily brought up before
being forced to become priests or nuns.
We learn much about the background of Quirke. He and his
brother Malachy - or Mal - as medical students had spent some time in Boston
(Massachusetts), 20 years before our time. They became acquainted with the
two daughters of a rich Irish immigrant. That must have been in the 1930s.
The good daughter, Sarah, refused to indulge in sex before marriage. Delia,
the other, became pregnant, so that Quirke had to marry her, but she died in
childbirth and Mal married the lovely Sarah, much to Quirke's regret.
Quirke's daughter Phoebe is then brought up by Mal and Sarah as their own,
not telling her who her parents really were.
It is now the present, that is to say some time in the
1950s. Quirke suspects that Mal, who is a member of these Knights of Saint
Patrick, had gotten Christine Falls pregnant. Was he then responsible for
the murder of the other woman in order to cover it up? And had he even had
Quirke himself beaten to within an inch of his life in order to stop him
from investigating further? The old Judge Griffin - the father - disliked
his son Mal and always favored Quirke. But the judge, despite his age and
standing in Irish society, is himself no angel. And Phoebe is told that
Quirke, who she now hates, is her real father.
The last book of the series, Even the Dead, which
I read a week or two ago, also deals with the same basic story: the illegal
shipping of illegitimate babies from Dublin to Boston. I wondered if all of
these Quirke books would continue with just this single theme. That would be
boring. But I have gotten started on the second book in the series and it is
concerned with a different form of depravity, so I suspect there will be an
interesting variety of crimes to read about in the next couple of weeks.
The Silver Swan:
"Doctor" Kreutz, despite his name, is a mysterious Indian
person, expounding Eastern religions and practices while performing erotic
massages on middle-aged women, snapping pornographic pictures of them with
his camera. A younger woman gets mixed up in this business, keeping things
secret from her middle-aged husband. She goes into partnership with Doctor
Kreutz's sidekick, Leslie White, a sleazy but elegant man, seemingly
irresistible to all women. Their business is "The Silver Swan" beauty
parlor. Even Quirke's daughter Phoebe, in all her innocence, is attracted to
The whole thing ends in a series of murders. Was the
first death, that of the young woman, a suicide?
This is the beginning of the story that was resolved in April
in Spain, thus answering the question posed at the end of the book. We
are introduced to the Latimer family. April Latimer is perhaps 25 and she is
a junior doctor in the hospital where Quirke is the pathologist. As we saw
in that later book, the uncle is a powerful and corrupt politician in 1950s
Ireland. The father was a famous fighter in the struggle for Irish
independence, but his private life was filled with degrading, horrible
excesses. April's brother is a brittle but successful Dublin lawyer.
Unfortunately poor old Phoebe, Quirke's daughter, is
again brought into the whole mess. She has a circle of friends including
April. There is also a small, pushy young man who works as a reporter for a
- Thankfully the "legacy media" is now gradually
dying out. We have finally cancelled our subscription to the local
newspaper which we have been receiving for the last 40 years or more.
Also an actress in the Irish theater; and finally an
African medical student from Nigeria. All of the women are fascinated by
this exotic member of the circle. We are told of Phoebe's fascination with
his dark skin: its texture, its smell. And in an erotic passage we are told
of her beautiful union with the student on his narrow bed. The old woman
living in the top floor of the derelict house where the actress lives tells
us that the student has been a frequent visitor there. And what about April,
who, according to the moral values of the Dublin of that time, lives a wild,
The story starts off with Phoebe wondering where April
is. She has not heard from her for the past two weeks. And she gets Quirke
into the quest to find April. As a pleasant distraction, Quirke is welcomed
into the bed of the actress. I find this difficult to understand. In fact,
women seem to throw themselves at Quirke. We can understand this in the case
of the healthy young African, but Quirke? He spends half his time staggering
about in a drunken stupor. And not only for that half, but for all the time,
he is filling the air with his foul cigarette smoke. Do women really find
that to be attractive? Does this reflect the desires of most women, or is it
only an aberration in the mind of John Banville? Who knows?
Perhaps his attraction as far as the actress was
concerned was at least partially based on the fact that he purchased a very
exclusive car in the middle of the story. An Alvis TC 108 Super Graber Coupé. Apparently only
three of these hand made cars were ever produced. Am I giving too much
away to say that at the end of the story, Quirke's car is totally
demolished. Driven off a cliff into the sea, thus leaving the world
with only two of these cars. Or is this just a fiction so that, in
fact, all three still remain in existence?
In any case it is clear that the Latimer family has
gotten rid of April in one way or another.
A Death in Summer:
A man is found with his head blasted off, attached to the
body with just a few strands of corpuscle. He has a shotgun in his hands.
Obviously the killer placed the gun in the hands of the corpse. I can't
imagine that a shotgun would be capable of blasting off a person's head.
Could it be possible if the gun was filled with heavy, explosive slugs? His
name is/was Richard Jewell, or Diamond Dick. Inspector Hackett and Quirke
are at the scene of the crime. The wife and sister of the deceased are
strangely distanced. We are told that Richard Jewell was a Jew. But he had a
Catholic upbringing and considered himself to be a Christian. Nevertheless
the other characters think of him as being Jewish. They are not prepared to
separate him from his original tribe, or caste. We are told that other
characters are also Jewish. Except for Quirke's assistant, David Sinclair,
who also belongs to the tribe, they all seem to be evil. Is John Banville an
anti-Semite? He is certainly anti-Roman Catholic.
What is the nature of this evil? They, along with various
Christian men, are members of a society called the Friends of Saint
Christopher's Orphanage. Poor little boys, 7 or 8 years old, are held
prisoner in this institution. It is run by a person named Father Ambrose. An
elegant old man. He is essentially a pimp, selecting boys to be abused by
these Friends of the Orphanage. Jewell is continuously seeking "fresh meat"
to satisfy his tastes. He has even abused his own daughter and his
step-sister, who is much younger than him.
The French wife, whose maiden name was Françoise
d'Aubigny, is a manipulative person. She sleeps with Quirke. And also Phoebe
is again dragged into things as well. Towards the end when Françoise has
escaped to her property on the Côte d'Azure, she tells us that her father
was fascinated with German culture. (This is just after World War II.) She
angrily spits out the German equivalent of Françoise, namely Franziska.
Well, that war is long in the past, and I prefer the name Franziska rather
than the manipulative Françoise.
This one was a pleasant break from all those Roman
Catholic religious orders with their members abusing children in horrible
all the bitterness of the writing, I wondered if the author had
himself suffered such abuse. According to his Wikipedia page, he did
go to Catholic schools, but he was living at home. The entry includes
the absurd statement: " A reformed criminal,
Banville stole a book from Wexford County Library while in his teens." Can
we speculate that perhaps that statement might have been put into the
Wikipedia by a Catholic priest? As revenge? Vengeance?
The book begins with an interesting and bizarre scene. A
young man who knows nothing about sailing is invited out for a day on the
water by an older man. They sail off for hours until they are out of sight
of land. Suddenly the older man draws a pistol and tells a story, seemingly
threatening the younger man. Then, rather than murdering the other, he
points the pistol at his own chest and fires, collapsing on the deck in an
expanding puddle of blood. The young man is horrified and instinctively
throws the gun away into the ocean. After many hours he is rescued.
How can he prove that he didn't murder the older man? But
it's worse than that. The whole story involves a major family business which
is jointly run by two families. A generation or two before, the families
were equal partners. But then one of the families began to dominate the
business. This was the family of English-Protestant heritage of the older
man in the boat. The family of the younger man was of Irish-Catholic
heritage. And secretly this younger man had been manipulating the finances,
squeezing out the other family. Thus one way or another, it would seem that
the younger man would be ruined.
But it is a complicated story with many more twists and
turns. And we are told of the ambivalent feeling of the Irish for their
Irish-Anglo-Protestant neighbors. They are despised for their role in past
history, and yet they are respected as being better businessmen, more
honest, more successful than the Catholics.
In the middle of the night a body is found floating in
the canal. It turns out to be Jimmy Minor, the reporter, the sometime friend
of Phoebe. Again a long story where, this time, we encounter the "Tinkers".
I think they are now called the "Travelers". An Irish phenomenon, similar but distinct
from the Gypsies, or Romani. (The champion heavyweight boxer, Tyson Fury
tells us that he is a Traveler.) But in the end everything again comes down
to the abuse of small children by Roman Catholic priests.
Well, this is the end of the Benjamin Black, Quirke
books. He has gradually gotten onto my nerves with his constant need for
whisky and cigarettes. During the story Quirke begins to experience
hallucinations. He seems to be losing his mind. The final scene has him in
the office of a specialist, presumably a neurologist, X-raying his brain to
see what's wrong with it. While alcohol addles the brain it must also
preserve whatever there is which remains. We are not told what the result of
the examination has been.
After having immersed myself in all those John
Banville books I was at a loss as to what to read next. I tried The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun. That is actually a
trilogy of short books. I read through the first story; a man, apparently
well-off, rejects the comforts of the city and occupies himself with casual
laboring jobs on the farms of southern Norway. He falls in love with
middle-aged farmers wives who reject him. Meaninglessness, hopelessness.
Starting on the second book of the trilogy before quickly giving up, it was
just more of the same. Then I tried A Room with a View, by E.M.
Forester. Perhaps it was meant to be amusing. But again, it seemed
meaningless. The news, Ukraine, Covid, was just too depressing.
This book by Lisa See was similarly depressing to match
the general mood. As always, she writes about China. I was unclear about the
time of the book until near the end where it is said that much of the
suffering was due to the Taiping Rebellion, which was in the 1850s. But the
story could have equally well been placed hundreds of years before that
time. If everything she writes about these things is true then China must
have been one of the most distorted and warped societies that has ever
First of all we have the horrible business of deforming
the feet of young girls. As it is described, when the child is about 6 years
old, having been allowed to run about and play in the healthy air before
that time, the little girl is then confined to the "women's room" in the
upstairs part of the house. There the feet are bound tightly, and ever more
tightly. The girl cries out in pain, but is forced to walk back and forth in
the room, with the binding ever tighter. Soon the bones break, the girl
weeps in pain but is forced to walk back and forth again and again. The
broken bones are then bound ever more tightly, and the result after a couple
of years is either gangrene setting in and the girl dies, or the bones set
in a bizarre deformity, rendering the growing girl and the grown woman a
virtual cripple. It is then said that men found such deformed, crippled feet
to be sexually attractive! How can we understand such sexual depravity which
apparently pervaded the whole culture of China? And then the main character
continuously tells us how ugly normal, healthy feet are. These are the feet
of the women servants. I read quickly through the disgusting chapters where
the narrator, Lily, and her contracted friend, Snow Flower, have their feet
From then on life for the women was confined almost
exclusively to the "women's room". Soon they are married off to other
families and other women's rooms. Their only value there is measured
according to their ability to produce male babies. Female babies are
rubbish; a drain on the household; a useless mouth to feed and then a drain
on the family finances since a marriage involves large sums of money being
transferred from the family of the bride to that of the groom. Then if the
husband of the woman dies she is considered to be disposable and is sold off
as a servant, or perhaps as a sex-slave to the highest bidder.
Could it really be that this brutal and disgusting story
represents a true description of traditional Chinese society? Lisa See has
told us of her qualifications for writing about such subjects. She has
visited her distant relatives in China, heard their stories. How depressing.
Perhaps we can understand Mao's cultural revolution as a very sensible way
to change things for the better.
Having finished the book and looking for something else I
saw that Lisa See had written Flower Net, a kind of detective story which she
published in 1997. A story of a network of organized Chinese crime,
smuggling things into California. We have the Chinese investigators using
their methods and then the American FBI with its methods. The Americans are
described as civilized, reasonable, helpful, while the Chinese are also nice
people, but they are prepared to exercise brutality. In particular we read
about the fact that each neighborhood in China has an overseer who records
all the details of the lives of everybody in the neighborhood, down to the
last details. On the basis of these records it is then determined what they
are allowed to do, where they are allowed to live, whether or not they are
to be punished.
Some time ago I watched the Black Mirror series, showing
more or less fanciful possible futures, dystopias. One episode was a
humorous story of a young woman in a society dominated by a mobile telephone
software similar to "Facebook". People continuously clicking "like" or
"dislike" buttons. Having lots of "likes" allowed people to have better
places to live, higher income, education, travel, and all that. The woman of
the story tried everything to get as many "likes" as possible, yet she
dropped further and further down in her "Facebook" score, becoming an
outcast, homeless, rejected. And then I saw a report saying that exactly
this system is being implemented in modern China! How horrible. A
realization of this fictitious dystopia. Could it be that we will face a
similar fate? After all, the traditional forms of government are gradually
being replaced by the companies which control the virtual world that people
live in today. When I walk about the place, most people I see are not
looking at the world around them. Instead they are holding their mobile
telephones up to their faces while walking. But on the other hand, although
it appears to be part of traditional Chinese culture to be continuously
evaluated by a neighborhood overseer, that is not the case here. The Stasi
of East Germany is a recent memory which is thought of with revulsion. So I
hope that we will not soon be living in a world governed by "Facebook" likes
I've been finding it difficult to get started
reading things, soon giving up, dissatisfied with what was started. The book
Life, by Merlin Sheldrake, seemed interesting. All about fungi,
mushrooms, yeast and all that. They are everywhere. In the soil where they
are essential for plant growth. Indeed, they create the soil in the first
place. And our bodies are full of all sorts of fungi. We would not be able
to live without them. It really is a fascinating subject. But the often
flippant style of writing put me off. Merlin Sheldrake (a wonderful name)
tells us of his experiences with LSD, administered to him in the
experimental environment of a hospital. He describes the fungi which infect
certain kinds of ants. It changes the behavior of the ants, making them
climb up to the top of a plant and then bite into the stem of the plant with
a death grip. The fungi then consumes the body of the ant, growing a stalk,
or mushroom, which projects from the ant's head. He then speculates for page
upon page about the relationship of ergot to humanity. This is a fungi that grows on
grains and led to much sickness in medieval Europe. It also causes
hallucinations and is the basis of LSD. And then there is mescalin and the
"magic mushrooms". Are these fungi taking over the human race in a similar
manner to the ant fungi? Such speculation became boring and I turned to
something else before getting very far into the book.
I tried Why We Love Pirates, by Rebecca Simon PhD. She
explains in an interesting way who Captain Kidd was and how he was unfairly
used to set an example. She tells us how much she enjoyed the movies of the
Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp. And so the book goes on and on
about what happened in the Bahamas at the beginning of the 17th century. But
surely there is much more to piracy than just that. We have the modern day
pirates capturing gigantic ships off East Africa. Perhaps they are not
lovable, but their prizes are impressive. Then the pirates in Indonesia,
around the Maluku Islands, or those in the Strait of Malacca. And of course
there have been pirates throughout history. Think of the "Shores of Tripoli"
of the 19th century which the Marines sing about, or even the pirates of
Ancient Rome. It is a huge subject, yet the book was nothing more than a
romantic celebration in the style of Johnny Depp. I quickly gave up.
And so I thought I would try a few biographies. Real
stories about real people. I started with this one about Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister of the
1840s. The author, who writes elegantly and with deep knowledge of his
subject, was the Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher. Occasionally in the
text he compares one situation or another which confronted Peel with
something or other to do with Thatcher, always in her favor, which was an
irritation. But apart from that it was a very enjoyable read. It was
pleasant to fill the mind with the world of the early 19th century. Of
course there was much wrong with the England of those days, and Peel was not
always prepared to do the right thing. But at least he did not require the
whole population to lock themselves in their houses for weeks on end, wear
masks and be injected with genetically engineered substances. And so it was
very pleasant to live for a few days in a different time of long ago while
reading this book.
In the 1830s and 40s people remembered the horrors of the
French Revolution. Thus there was very much of a conservative feeling.
Society should only be changed slowly, gradually. The interests of rich
landowners and the wealthy industrialists were respected.
What was the normal state of affairs in those days? For
example, Catholics were not allowed to sit in parliament. Thus whereas the
vast majority of Irish were Catholic, they were denied representation. In
fact at the beginning of his career, Peel was the commissioner for Ireland,
representing the conservative interests of the Protestant - English -
minority. Much of the book is concerned with Ireland. And then there was the
corrupt electoral system. Voting was open, in front of everyone. Obviously a
tenant farmer did not cast a vote opposing that of his local squire. And of
course only men who owned a certain amount of property and income could
vote. Some rural constituencies only had a few small villages while major
cities of the industrial revolution such as Manchester were hardly
represented at all. And then there were the Corn Laws, first brought in to
finance the war against the French. The import of grains was taxed on a
variable basis, thus ensuring that the local squires and farmers had a
guaranteed high price for their crops. The Corn Law was brought in again
after Napoleon was defeated to satisfy the farmer's lobby. Peel was at first
a staunch supporter of all of these things, but later, as Prime Minister, he
had them all changed.
We read much of the complicated politics of those times.
One advantage of the chaotic and unfair electoral system was that each
member of parliament was an individual, only loosely tied to a party. There
was nothing of the rigid party discipline of these days. If Boris Johnson
were to be substituted for Robert Peel in the 1840s, his lockdowns, mask,
and genetic injection proposals would have been greeted with derision and
rebellion. Parliamentarians were free to think for themselves and to vote as
Robert Peel was the son of a wealthy textile
manufacturer. We read about his childhood, schooling, university. He went to
Harrow where, we are told, education consisted almost exclusively of the
learning of Latin. The goal was to be able to speak and to read and write
Latin as fluently as his native English. The pupils, even in private, were
to speak Latin. Advanced pupils learned Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Science
and mathematics was unheard of. He was a contemporary of Lord Byron at
Harrow who recalled that "while I (Byron) was always in scrapes, he (Peel)
never". Studying at Oxford he discovered that there was more to the world
than just Latin. Oxford actually had science. And so Peel decided to study
both the Classics and Mathematics. He became the first person ever to have
obtained a double first in these two disciplines.
Without being an aristocrat he had inherited great
wealth. When reading in the book of the sums of money involved in one thing
and another, these sums are sometimes compared with the modern-day
equivalents which have been diminished by inflation. There is an official inflation calculator of the Bank of England. Clicking
in there, we see that one English pound of 1840 is calculated to have the
same value as £108.40 today. That is, English money is less than one
hundredth the value it used to have. But then, when describing the huge
palace-like houses Peel lived in in London, with his collection of paintings
and everything else, we are confronted with a few seeming contradictions.
For example we are told that he built himself a huge mansion, or palace, on
a beautiful site with extensive gardens overlooking the river, and it cost
him £14,000. Multiplying that by the Bank of England's supposed rate of
inflation, we obtain something like one and a half million pounds. Yet that
would be barely sufficient to buy a modestly sized apartment with two or
three bedrooms in some high-rise building in today's London!
Despite his wealth, as Prime Minister Peel was concerned
about the plight of the poor. During the Irish potato famine he tried to
import as much corn (maize) from the United States into Ireland as possible.
By reducing import duties on food and most other things, life became more
affordable and the English economy became more competitive. In a time of
loose morals he was devoted to his wife and his family. At the age of 62, on
a ride in London, he was thrown from his horse. His injuries were such that
he died a few days later. Crowds of people gathered before his house to morn
the passing of a politician loved by the people.
Years ago the Folio Society put out a three volume
set of the Diary of Samuel Pepys which I have here on my shelves. It is not
the complete diary. According to the Introduction, about 2/3 had been left
out, which means that the whole thing must take up about 9 volumes and over
10,000 closely written pages. Nevertheless this edition has at least part of
what Pepys wrote for each of the days in the 10 years he kept the diary. It
is a beautifully produced set with many fine illustrations. But of course I
did not read every page. I suppose I soon gave up, browsing here and there,
admiring the pictures. Then a few years later I got another book from the
Folio Society called "The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary". Very
interesting and enjoyable, and something I could read all the way through.
Over the years different publishers have extracted just a sufficient number
of passages to make a normal-sized book. The 19th century extracts avoided
everything scandalous whereas more recent editions include all the juicy
bits in addition to the set pieces: the Fire of London and the Great Plague.
It is interesting to read what Pepys writes on all sorts
of themes. His state of health, music, his personal friendship with many of
the leading figures of the London of the 1660s, including the King, Charles
II. He was also a member of the Royal Society in those days when it was a
club for pleasant discussions of all the phenomena which interested the
members. So now I have read another book about Pepys. This one is more
concerned with the juicy bits, following the fashion of today.
We have Pepys mixture of Latin and French words for
obscuring his erotic fumblings. Claire Tomalin suspects that he used these
as a way of increasing the pleasure of his memories while writing the diary.
But she tells us that his encounters were mainly confined to erotic
fondling; perhaps only the poor Mrs. Bagwell was subjected to a long-term
and full sexual exploitation. Her husband, Mr. Bagwell, a carpenter at the
naval yards, was offering his wife as a kind of prostitute in exchange for
favors. And then we are told that at one point in the diary Pepys has
intercourse with his wife and finds that she is enjoying it. He thinks that
this is strange, unnatural, and he meditates on it. Women are only there for
the pleasure of men.
The author, who certainly does not condemn her subject,
tells us that the diary is perhaps the best description in literature of the
married state. Really? Am I just being boring, old-fashioned, conservative?
I find the way Pepys was continually cheating other people, always lying
through his teeth, to be very distasteful. For example he obtained one of
his positions by making a deal with somebody else: Thomas Povey. It was
agreed that the usual bribery payments which came with the office would be
split equally between them. But although Pepys received bribes of many
thousands of pounds, he gave Povey nothing at all and replied to all
inquiries with letters of high indignation. Well, Pepys became a wealthy and
famous man. In contrast we mathematicians spend our time on obscure puzzles
which interest almost nobody. Cheating, lying in the style of Pepys leads
nowhere, and thus our lives remain ordinary and boring.
The diary ends with his pursuit of Deborah "Deb" Willet. Earlier editors and biographers assumed
that Deb had disappeared into the mists of history, free of Peyps's further
gropings. But in an Afterword we learn that in 2006 a historian discovered
documents related to Deb's further life. She married Jeremiah Wells, a
theologian, and we learn that Pepys obtained a position for Wells as a
ship's chaplain. Deb had two daughters, but then she died only a few years
later. Jeremiah Wells died a year and a half after that. All of this is in
the time after the diary so that we have no definite details, mere
speculation. Was Deb treated similarly to Mrs. Bagwell, with Wells playing
the role of a pimp? Were perhaps one or another of the daughters Pepys's
children? Did Pepys, with all his money, see that the two daughters were
supported after both Deb and Jeremiah died?
At the beginning of the book we are told what it was like
to enter a house in London in the 17th century. The smells, the dirt, the
fact that people are unwashed. And then they are continually getting sick
and dying. We learn the details of the operation to remove the stone in
Pepys's bladder when he was a young man. And then after his painful death at
70 he was dissected by his associates of the Royal Society and it was found
that there were stones in his right kidney, even adhering it to the back
wall of the abdominal cavity. His stomach and intestines were totally
inflamed. But his heart and right kidney were still sound. And then much
earlier, after a holiday trip to France, his wife Elizabeth became ill and
died within three weeks. She was only about 40 years old. Pepys's siblings,
his relatives, all seemed to die quickly. At least his father enjoyed a
What were they all dying of? Was it just the dirt, the
unsanitary water, unclean food, the immoral way of life? These days most
people live well beyond 70. I am approaching 75, running a few miles a
couple of days each week, taking no medicines, avoiding doctors,
particularly since they started injecting people with these gene therapy
shots. What advantages do we really have over those people of 350 years ago?
For example the kings and queens of that time rarely made it much past 50,
assuming that they were not assassinated before then. But the present Queen
Elizabeth, her husband and her mother all live up to and beyond 100.
When starting to write my thoughts here,
discovering the homepage of the author, I was astonished to find that she
has already published something like 36 books. Kathy Glass is a foster
mother. A foster family takes children who the social services deem to be in
troubling circumstances and gives them a temporary home until either things
clear up, or real adoptive parents are found. She must have had at least 36
foster children. It seems that each of her books describes one of them. This
one is a 10 year old boy named Tayo. He is clearly an African, but upon
arrival he tells the author that he is white. The story is that his mother
came from Southeast Asia; was it Thailand? She was working as a lap-dancer
in Nigeria where she slept with the father of Tayo. He was a highly educated
and successful businessman, and without marrying her he agreed to support
her while having his son Tayo living in his large house in Lagos where he
attended the finest schools in the country. But when Tayo was only 5 or 6
the mother kidnapped him and took him on an odyssey, finally ending in
London where she worked as an occasional prostitute. She was a drug addict.
She hated Africa - and almost everything else - and told Tayo that he was
white, not black. Tayo had to organize her life for her, dodging the fists
of drunken, drugged men, occasionally staying with other people, attending
various schools temporarily, even being forced to work in a sweatshop in
London on a sewing machine for 12 or more hours a day.
When Tayo was brought to stay with Kathy Glass she was
astonished to find that he spoke politely with a very refined British
accent. He gradually grew used to life with Kathy, doing well at school. The
mother could only be contacted through a mobile phone number which was
almost always turned off. She gave no address. Contacts were violent
displays of shouting and bad language. While the mother needed Tayo to help
her, it was clear that he needed a stable family, away from the mother.
He had vague memories of an ideal former life in Nigeria.
He wanted to return to Nigeria to his dad. This became an obsession. He
expected people to find his dad and bring him home. But the mother refused
to give any information, and Tayo couldn't remember. What was the real name
of his father? Where had he lived in Nigeria? Tayo became sullen, withdrawn.
All he could think about was returning to his father in Nigeria.
Then suddenly he was found. The father had employed
private detectives, searching everywhere: Thailand, Europe, looking for
Tayo, year after year for five years. He came to England, an elegantly
dressed gentleman, meeting Kathy and learning about the situation of his
son. There was a legal process for Tayo's custody, opposed at first by the
mother who appeared in court in a drunken state, shouting and swearing. And
so custody was granted and Tayo returned to Nigeria, the land of his dreams.
A beautifully written, moving book.
Listening to a recent podcast, the speaker
described how after living for years in the Far East he had come back to
Christianity. He described the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers,
their assertion that the true Revelation was in everybody, only needing to
be awakened, and it was of a nature beyond words, incapable of being
described. This mystical fact is the basis of Christianity. He was asked
where one might read further into such things and he recommended the
writings of Rudolf Steiner.
The word Mystery fills this book, and we wonder what it
is. What is a Mystical Fact? How is it possible to write a book describing
something which is beyond description? A few chapter headings: The Mysteries
and their Wisdom; The Greek Sages Before Plato in the Light of the Wisdom of
the Mysteries; Plato as Mystic; The Mystery Wisdom of Egypt; The Lazarus
Miracle; Christianity and Heathen Wisdom. Passages in the Bible, in Plato's
Symposium, and in other ancient writings are examined and interpreted
in terms of secret meanings. All of this was too mysterious for me.
Perhaps much of this speculation is motivated by the
seemingly brutal fact that each of us will, individually, in reality, in
some very specific way, time and place, die. There is no vaccination against
this. Covering your face with a mask and hiding at home will not make it go
away. Is this something to become nervous about, frightened? To have
"butterflies in the stomach" as if some difficult public performance must be
prepared for and for which we are ill prepared. By its very nature Death is
a mystery. People who have had near-death experiences and people who have
accompanied many deaths in hospices tell us that death can be a wonderful
experience if we do not fight it. Otherwise it can be dreadful.
Surely the best thing is to live in the world of our
experience as it is. It is often thought that modern physics is a mystery,
only to be understood in terms of esoteric thought. I prefer to let the mind
and the spirit seek a more rational revelation.
For years I received books from the Folio Society,
and they fill the bookshelves here. So why not reread some of them? This was
one of my favorites. Beautiful, lyrical writing. It is one of those many
books in the genre of World War One writings. I was surprised that it is not
considered to be such a classic as for example Robert Graves' Goodbye to
All That, or the books and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. But on second
thoughts it is not surprising. Unlike me, it seems that most of the people
who read these books are middle-aged women. A book about the Great War
should dwell on the horror, the futility, the suffering. Yet in 1916, the
year Cecil Lewis joined the Royal Flying Corps as a 17 year old boy,
middle-aged women were out on the streets of London giving young men and
boys white feathers as a sign of their cowardice for not being in uniform.
Cecil Lewis dreamed of flying and he couldn't wait to
enlist in order to be able to ascend into the sky and fly airplanes. He
describes the machines he flew. Rereading the book this time I was
continually looking things up in the internet, finding pictures of
airplanes, reading long articles about their characteristics, their history.
He tells us that he spent hundreds of hours in a Morane Parasol. We are told that it was a dangerous
machine. Unstable, difficult to fly. It was not a "scout" for engaging in
dogfights; a spin would be fatal. Rather he flew along the lines,
photographing the trenches, ranging the canons, escaping enemy aircraft.
Later he flew missions on an SE5 with the famous 56 Squadron, on one occasion
diving vertically from 15,000 feet, or whatever it was, guns blazing,
directly into the "Richthofen Circus". But he tells us that the SE5 was
at a disadvantage in aerial combat in comparison with a Spad or a Sopworth Camel, or indeed a Fokker Triplane.
The fact that he survived and lived on to be 98 years old
in the year 1997 was hardly to be expected. His motto was Safety Last. For
him the war in the air was of a different character to that on the ground.
Combat was as with the knights of old. A test of skill and courage, circling
one another in complicated three dimensional aerobatics. The victor flew
away while the vanquished fell in a clean, fiery death, more honorable than
the uncountable, meaningless deaths in the mud of the trenches below.
After the war Cecil Lewis was one of the five original
founders of the BBC. But this is no longer the theme of the book. He was in
China for a year or two in 1920-21, with the purpose of establishing an air
service between Peking and Shanghai using Vickers Vimy Commercial aircraft. He mission was to
train a group of young Chinese to be pilots, but the problems were
insurmountable: language, culture, misconceptions. It all came to nothing.
He soon became dissatisfied with the British expat culture in Peking and
bought his own house. There are vague, dreamy passages of romantic evenings.
It is only when we read through his Wikipedia page that we see that he
married Evdekia Dmitrievna Horvath, the daughter of a Russian general, in
Peking, in 1921. And there we find other details of his and her lives.
In the early days of oil drilling, around 1900, the
drills used were apparently just large, scaled up versions of the kind of
drills we have for boring through wood or cement. Just scraping away at the
bottom of the drill hole. This works fine in soil or I suppose in soft
rocks, but not very well in hard rock. Howard Hughes' father (Howard Sr.)
was in Texas during the rush for oil back then. He got to know someone who
had an idea for making more efficient drill bits for drilling through rock.
There was a wooden model, but not enough funds to construct a working model.
Thus Hughes Sr. bought the rights for the idea, took out patents,
established the Hughes Tool Co. to manufacture these improved drill
bits, became rich, and the company gushed with money as the deeper wells
drilled through layers of rock gushed with oil. But Hughes Sr. and his wife,
the mother of Howard, did not live long enjoying their riches. They died
when their son was only 20 years old. The flow of money continued, but into
Howard quit school and quit Texas since it contained
people trying to tell him what to do. He moved to California, started flying
airplanes, decided to make a couple of movies in Hollywood with all those
beautiful actresses. In particular the epic Hell's Angels. Getting bored with that, he turned to
the idea of having people build a high speed airplane for himself, which
became the H-1
racer. He flew it in 1935 at the speed of 352 m.p.h., claiming a speed
record. However already in 1931 the Schneider Trophy machine, the Supermarine S.6B, flown by Flight Lieutenant George
Stainforth, had achieved a speed of 407 m.p.h. The Supermarine was a float
plane, whose aerodynamics were impeded by the large floats it had to carry.
One wonders why Hughes was so slow! His problem seems to have been that his
motor was a radial Pratt & Whitney producing only 700 h.p. In contrast,
the Schneider Trophy machine had a Rolls-Royce V12 engine rated at 2,350
h.p. Nevertheless Hughes seems to have been a master of publicity, flying
his H-1 from California to New York to great public acclaim. He then bought
14 Super Electra airplane in 1938 and, together with a four man crew,
flew around the Northern Hemisphere at relatively high latitudes, landing
quickly to refuel and immediately take off, completing the circuit in just
under 8 days. He must have paid lots of money to have enabled all of this
coordination. Upon arrival back in New York he was given an unprecedented
reception. The ticker-tape parade even exceeded that given to Charles
Lindbergh! I find this difficult to imagine. He spent all of World War II
trying to have an airplane built and sold to the War Office, the Hughes XF-11. His constant interfering led to it only
being finished after the war was over. For its maiden flight, Hughes
insisted that he pilot it himself. Ignoring all sensible procedures, he
crashed it into a house in Beverly Hills, injuring only himself. Then of
course there was the Hughes H-4 Hercules, or Spruce Goose business. Beyond this, he again produced
some Hollywood movies in the 1950s. Then he bought into Las Vegas in a big
way, owning various hotels and casinos. And yet by this time he had become a
mad recluse. The book describes the strange, even disgusting details of his
insanity. I was only half way through the book. But frankly I had lost
interest in his various projects, and so I gave up.
In his madness Hughes became obsessed with the idea of
germs. But in recent times facts about the human microbiome have become well known. We are covered
with bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses, and whatnot, huge numbers of all
kinds of microorganisms both inside and outside our bodies. It is said that
there are more than 10 times as many of these organisms on and within each
of us than the total number of our own human cells. Without this microbiome
we would quickly die. Each of us is a fantastic world, a jungle of teaming
life. But if we live a distorted life, bringing all of these organisms out
of balance, we become sick.
Now it is undoubtedly also true that there are particular
species of microorganisms which, individually, can make us sick. A month or
two ago we had a visitor who had taken all of these genetic injections, plus
the "boosters", which have been injected into people in the last year. A day
after his visit he emailed to say that he had tested "positive" - a not
unexpected result given the disruptions to the body such injections must
cause. Then 2 or 3 days later I developed a fever, making me feel
sufficiently sick to stay in bed for a day or two. It was the first time I
had felt sick for many years. A test was also "positive". Then 10 days later
another test was "negative". This correlation between an actual sickness,
contact with a "positive" person, and the "test", whatever it was, surprised
me. It is always said that correlation is not necessarily causation.
Nevertheless, for me this does prove that "Covid", while being nothing more
than a common cold, is in fact an example of a particular organism which
does cause a specific sickness.
But this does not justify the obsession with germs which
consumed Howard Hughes, and indeed, which has led to the world-wide hysteria
which we have seen in the last two years. Howard Hughes died a crippled,
wasted wreck at 70 years of age, killed by his worries about germs. Who
knows what the fate of the vast number of people who have submitted
themselves to these multiple genetic injections will turn out to be?
Another biography. In contrast to Howard Hughes,
Frank Sinatra did not simply inherit great wealth and he did not shut
himself away from the world in a state of cowardly fear and anxiety. He was
the antithesis of everything that was bad about Hughes. Sinatra was a
musician, a singer of songs, and we expect a biography of Frank Sinatra to
tell us about the overwhelming adulation he received, the special, unique
properties of his voice. A voice which is immediately recognizable.
But frankly I don't enjoy listening to Sinatra's
recordings. His style was something halfway between talking and singing. And
the speaking voice in his songs has an aggressive quality. Take it or leave
it he seems to be saying. Yet listening to his early recordings in the 1940s
we hear something entirely different. He was really singing in those days.
Young girls - they were called bobby soxers - crowded in to his concerts and screamed
the whole time. I remember going to an Elvis Presley movie in the 1950s as a
young boy, finding the theater filled with girls, and during the whole time
they were screaming, reaching a crescendo each time Elvis actually appeared
on screen. This was only a movie! I can hardly imagine what a live concert
must have been like. Absolutely deafening. The same thing happened with the
Beatles in the 1960s. But it all started off with Sinatra in the 40s.
"Sinatramania", "Swoonatra". Sinatra himself described it:
"Perfectly simple: It was the war years
and there was a great loneliness, and I was the boy in every corner
drugstore, the boy who'd gone off drafted to the war. That's all."
He wasn't drafted to the war. A perforated eardrum? It is said that internal
army files state that he was " not acceptable material from a psychiatric
viewpoint". The claim that he had bribed his draft board was found by the
FBI to be without merit.
Of course the book concentrates on his private life. The
wives, the mafia, his explosive temper. We are told that he could "have" any
woman he wanted. And he certainly did take them. After all, they were
throwing themselves at him. Officially, he had just three children, all with
his first wife, Nancy. One woman claimed to be his child and attempted to
have it proved in a court of law, but the family refused to allow DNA
testing. From what we read, it can easily be imagined that there are tens,
if not hundreds of further such children.
Ava Gardner was the great love of his life. She had as
much of a temper as Sinatra. And she was unique in that she was not throwing
herself at him. On the contrary, we read of Sinatra following her,
subserviently fulfilling her wishes on a movie set. She became pregnant.
Sinatra was overjoyed, but she went to London to have an abortion. (She had
also secretly had an abortion of an earlier pregnancy with Sinatra.) This
was too much, leading to a stormy divorce. We read of Sinatra back in
Hollywood, nursing his feelings. And then Marilyn Monroe was recovering from
her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. She joined Sinatra in his house for a time,
both sharing their sorrows. We are told that she preferred being without
clothes at home, often surprising visitors by appearing naked. And so they
both soon found comfort in one another.
The marriage to Mia Farrow, a woman who was younger than
Sinatra's daughter Nancy, ended quickly. Sinatra at first specified that Mia
Farrow would not be allowed to make any movies. But she pleaded with him and
was eventually allowed to start filming Rosemary's Baby, which was
shot in Europe. Sinatra then wanted to make a film in which she would star
alongside him. He insisted that she be back in time to start with his own
movie. But halfway into the production, the director of Rosemary's Baby
suddenly died in his sleep. This caused delays, angry telephone calls
between Sinatra and Farrow. He insisted that she just walk out of the
filming, leaving them to carry on without her despite the fact that she was
playing the staring role. She refused. And so Sinatra refused to have
anything more to do with her. The last wife, Barbara, was submissive,
putting up with him until the end. His "real" family, Nancy Sr. and the
three children, hated Barbara.
And then there was the mafia business. Sinatra was good
friends with Sam
Giancana, often meeting with him, dining, having drinks together. Also
Roselli. He told the FBI and the Las Vegas gambling commission that
they were just the friends he knew because they owned the nightclubs where
he sang. And then we are told of Sinatra's politics, his close connections
to the Kennedys. How he shut himself up for days after JFK's assassination,
full of grief. And yet Giancana and Roselli are thought to have been
intimately tied to the contract to kill Kennedy.
Sinatra was often together with Dean Martin and Sammy
Davis Jr., the "Rat Pack". We read about their drinking. Sinatra regularly
consumed at least a bottle of whiskey every day. And then he was
continuously smoking. Not good for health. And so, as in these biographies,
we move on to his death at the surprisingly old age of 82.
Having read the last two biographies of all these
real-life goings on, this book by Benjamin Black comes across as tame and
boring. The story takes place around Christmas in the year 1599. A young man
arrives in Prague and soon gets caught up in the intrigues of the court of
the Emperor, Rudolf II, who is depicted as being an absurdly fat fool. There
are two high officials, or should we say viziers, plotting against one
another. There is magic, alchemy, torrid eroticism. And murder. The young
man is charged with the task of discovering who done it.
The Benjamin Black stories of 1950s Dublin were better.
The island of Corsica was ruled by Italians, but
then some time before the birth of Napoleon it was taken over by the French.
Unlike France, Corsica was not a feudal society. On the contrary. Through
generations of elaborate inheritance, the land was divided up into small
parcels, even the houses themselves were divided up. Which rooms belonged to
which members of a family. Even the access to a staircase within a house was
governed by elaborate legal arrangements. Violations of these rules of
property were met with violence, vendettas. And thus the whole idea of the
French Revolution, that the peasants should be allowed to have property, had
nothing at all to do with Corsica. On the other hand, the Bonaparte family
was one of the leading families of the island. It is said that Napoleon's
mother was very beautiful, and that perhaps Napoleon was in fact the child
of the French military governor of Corsica. In any case, as a child he spoke
Corsican and Italian. French was for him a foreign language. Even as Emperor
he was unable to speak it correctly. His writings were nearly unreadable and
were full of grammatical errors. I sympathize with him! And at the beginning
of the French Revolution, Napoleon was fighting for Corsican independence
from France, despite being an officer on leave from the French army.
The author relied on original documents: letters,
journals; ignoring the vast literature, the myths, which have accumulated
about Napoleon. It is a long but very interesting book, clearing up many
misconceptions I had had.
For example I had thought that in Revolutionary France,
as in Cambodia, the terror just went on and on until the country was finally
defeated from outside. But this was not the case. The Reign of Terror ended when Robespierre was finally executed in 1794. And so
things quickly went back to normal. The fashionable life of Paris returned.
Many even openly longed for a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. They had
seen where democracy - the rule by the mob - had led, and the emergence of
Napoleon as a benign dictator was universally welcomed.
Napoleon was very much a family man, devoted to his wives
and mistresses, and they all (apart from Josephine who, at least initially,
despised him and had other men when he was away on his campaigns) seemed to
be completely in love with him. Especially his "real" wife, the princess
Marie Louise of Austria.
The idea of becoming an "emperor" was forced on him by
others who were afraid of the chaos and renewed terror which might come
about when he died. They longed for the stability of a new, more benevolent
monarchy. Napoleon found the coronation ceremony to be ridiculous and
embarrassing. However later he did succumb to illusions of grandeur.
Even after his disastrous defeat in Russia, the rest of
the European countries offered peace, with France given its "natural"
boundaries. In particular with the Rhine river being its eastern border.
This is much more than the present present extent of France, or indeed that
of the France before the revolution. Yet Napoleon was never able to accept
treaties with other countries. As soon as a deal was offered he insisted on
more, and ever more, unable to see things from the perspective of the
With the brief return of the Bourbon monarchy and
Napoleon's exile to Elbe, the people experienced the cruel retribution of
the old order, and so Napoleon's return was met with relief and jubilation.
And again a peace was offered by the other countries, yet it was not enough.
Against the wishes of all his advisors he marched to his doom at Waterloo.
I had thought that at least on Saint Helena he might have
had a pleasant time enjoying nature, writing his memoirs. At first this
might have been the case, but England was obsessed with a fear that he might
somehow escape, and so a very strict regime was installed. Two British
warships continually sailed around the island, one clockwise and the other
anticlockwise, hoping to intercept any attempts to rescue him. He was put
into an old barn up on the mountain, far away from the town. The rain leaked
in, along with swarms of flies and mosquitoes. There were hundreds of
soldiers stationed there, observing him continuously, cutting off any
contacts. The food was horrible. He was denied medical care. Shortly before
he died, the British military governor of the island sent a naval medic who,
hardly looking at the sick Napoleon lying in his bed, reported that he was
just pretending. Well, we might sympathize with his plight, but what about
the plight of all those people who suffered so needlessly on his completely
unnecessary Russian campaign?
I'm in the middle of reading a biography of
Leonardo da Vinci, but then I spotted this one. It's a very short book,
costing hardly anything on Amazon, I think originally written in French. I
first clicked on the German version, but there were numbers of grammatical
and logical mistakes in the text. Obviously just translated by some sort of
computer software. Therefore I clicked on the English version which, at
least, made more formal sense. Botticelli was a few years older than
Leonardo. They were both apprentices in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
When she was 16 years old, Simonetta Vespucci was brought from Genoa to Florence
to marry Marco Vespucci. Unlike Botticelli, both Simonetta and Marco were
members of the Italian aristocracy. Upon her arrival, everyone was struck by
Simonetta's beauty, particularly so Sandro. The story is that her husband,
Marco, had many other women and he didn't really care for Simonetta, while
Sandro became more and more in love with Simonetta, and she with him. She
served as a model for many of his paintings, including the naked Venus. Yet
if they were to become truly intimate, the savage laws of those days would
have condemned Sandro to have been burned at the stake.
According to the story of the book, Julian Medici
was the evil brother of the ruler of Florence, and he lusted after
Simonetta. After she told him that she had posed naked for Sandro, he, in an
hysterical fit, stabbed her. This contradicts the Wikipedia version of the
death of Simonetta. But who knows? The Wikipedia version of Global Warming,
and also that of Covid, both contradict reality, thus weakening our trust of
the Wikipedia as a source of information. Anyway, according to the book,
Sandro goes on to paint various pictures with allegories of the murder and
the guilt of Julian. I really can't see many parallels in this with the
story of Romeo and Juliet. At least Sandro was, indeed, buried at the feet
of Simonetta (if we are to believe his article in the Wikipedia).
The book is filled with many illustrations of the
paintings of those days, in particular those of Botticelli. The Kindle, with
its black and white display, is not well adopted for displaying
illustrations. So I ended up reading the book in the Amazon Cloud Reader.
There are some glaring mistakes. For example, having made it through much of
Leonardo's biography, I certainly know that Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine is a picture of Cecilia Gallerani,
the mistress of Ludovico Sforza. This book absurdly says that it is a
portrait of Isabella d'Este, the rich and powerful patron of the
arts. But the reality is that she was fat, the opposite of Cecilia, and she
commissioned various artists to paint her portrait, rejecting one after the
other since they painted true images of her obesity. Leonardo did make a
drawing in profile, the traditional method of making kings and queens appear
less fat than they were, vaguely promising a painting. But of course nothing
came of it.
More than anyone else, Leonardo da Vinci was the
true "renaissance man". Of course he was the painter who painted the Mona
Lisa, the most famous picture in the world. He also studied anatomy,
making many new discoveries. For example it was only 50 years ago that
people realized that his explanation of the function of the aortic valve of the heart is correct, and the theory
which had been believed up to that point was false. He was fascinated with
geometry and spent vast amounts of time on the problem of "squaring the
circle". The starting point was Hippocrates theorem about lunes. I had never
heard of it. It is an interesting geometric relation showing that the area of a particular lune is equal that of a certain
triangle. This is a tantalizing idea which seems to open a path to the
construction of the squaring of the circle. But of course Leonardo had only
a rudimentary idea of algebra, and even if he had been a master of that
subject, he would not have known that the number pi is transcendental - a
fact which was only proved in 1882, almost 400 years after Leonardo - and
thus pi is not constructable. Leonardo was a court musician who entertained
the aristocracy of Florence and Milan with his virtuosity on the lute. He
was an elegantly dressed, debonair conversationalist, captivating people
with his stories, his jokes. A vegetarian who abhorred the suffering of
animals, he was a military engineer, inventing devices for the wars of
renaissance Italy. An architect. He was especially valued for his organizing
of pageants, plays, displays of fireworks; painting the scenery,
constructing machines for elaborate stage displays. He was the intimate
friend of the renaissance rulers of Florence and Milan, and in his later
life especially Francis I, the King of France. A country manor house was provided for Leonardo just a few
hundred meters from the palace of Amboise, connected by an underground
tunnel so that the King could visit Leonardo daily without being observed.
The book discusses in detail each of his paintings which
have come down to us. Again, the Kindle is not helpful when displaying
illustrations, and so I looked up each of the pictures in the internet where
there are images which can be zoomed onto at high resolution. For example
look at The Baptism of Christ, which was mainly painted by
Leonardo's master, Verrocchio, when Leonardo was perhaps 21 or 22 years old.
Leonardo painted the left-hand angel (in the bottom left of the picture),
and he also painted Christ's legs. But contrast Leonardo's angel with that
of Verrocchio. What a world of difference! It is full of life, while
Verrocchio's angel is flat, lifeless. It is said that when Verrocchio saw
this, he declared that he had met his master, and he would never paint
anything more in his life. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison. Leonardo
was trying to paint in a lifelike way, showing the inner thoughts, the
emotions of the figures. In comparison, the pictures of Botticelli or
Michelangelo are flat, statuesque. They depict a dreamlike, other world. It
is a totally different form of art, and thus there can be no fair
And of course with Michelangelo, everything is filled
with muscular he-man nudes. Contrast Michelangelo's Holy Family with Saint John, with Leonardo's Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. It does seem to me
that in Leonardo's picture, the Virgin's right shoulder has become
uncomfortably large, but Michelangelo fills the background to his similar
work with a dense collection of male nudes, displaying their genitalia,
curiously devoid of pubic hair.
And then there is the Salvator Mundi. The book explains the history of this
painting and the reasons that it must be an authentic work of Leonardo. It
has been subjected to much rough handling and coarse restorations in the 500
years between then and now. As it has come down to us, the figure seems to
be suffering from some debilitating disease of the eyes. And I find it
difficult to understand how the hair is so straight, going down to the
shoulders where it then becomes full of curls. As with many students back in
the 1970s, I also let my hair grow long, not in an effort to emulate the
hippies, but rather owing to the fact that I couldn't be bothered to go to
the trouble of having it cut. The example of my hair, and that of many
others, showed that even hair which does not become curly at the ends tends
to grow outwards, especially at the sides of the head. On the other hand,
girls with straight hair who then apply curlers to the ends may indeed
achieve a similar effect. Well, Ok. It is a work of art, depicting an
otherworldly figure. We imagine the head and the curls of the figure
ascending into the heavens as with a rocket, with the curls representing the
rocket's flaming exhaust. Of course the author of the book did not follow
this fantasy of mine. But he did comment on the fact that the glass ball
which the figure is holding does not display the interesting optical
distortions which a real glass ball would produce. This is strange, since
Leonardo devoted so much time to the study of optics.
As for The Last Supper, deterioration has blurred the
details. This is owing to the fact that Leonardo rejected the technique of
fresco, preferring to paint on the wall with oil and tempera, enabling him
to avoid the flatness of a fresco painting. But it was not a technique which
would last. Recognizing this, along with many other problems, he gave up on
his commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari. Nevertheless we can see what The
Last Supper looked like by looking at the copies painted by his
students. For example that of Giampietrino. The figures certainly are
interesting, especially the female-like Judas. (However what is left of
Leonardo's original gives Judas a more masculine face than that in the
copy.) But the food does not appear to be very appetizing. A few brownish
bread rolls, and then various pink blobs, whatever they are, and perhaps a
lemon, all plopped randomly onto the table. Aside from the rosé wine and
some brownish thing on some of the plates, that is all there is. The
painting was in a monastery, so I suppose it was a condition of the contract
for the painting not to depict food which might arouse the appetites of the
monks to a finer fare than that to which they were accustomed.
It is said that Leonardo was not particularly religious,
preferring to believe that which he could actually see of the world. And yet
apart from a few calm paintings of prominent women, his art was religious.
One explanation of this is given by the previous book which I had just read.
But in this book of Walter Isaacson, the incident is downplayed: It seems
that in Florence there was an anonymous mailbox where anybody could insert a
note, accusing somebody else of some crime or another. By this method,
Leonardo was accused of sodomy, a crime which carried the penalty of burning
at the stake. The present book says that friends in high places got him off.
The previous book says that Botticelli got him of in a deal with the
Medicis. In any case, perhaps Leonardo, from then on, decided to adopt a
very cautious attitude to the church, avoiding anything which might be
thought to be provocative. Thus he took no part in the homo-erotic art which
was popular in those days.
And then finally it seems that the author has recently
written a biography of Steven Jobs. At a number of places in the text he -
indirectly - compares Jobs to Leonardo. This seems to me to be absurd. Why
ruin a story of the life of Leonardo with thoughts of these self-centered,
rapacious, obnoxious tech billionaires: Jobs, William Henry "Bill" Gates
III, Jeff Bezos, and what have you?
The world of Newtonian mechanics seems to us to be
so natural that it is difficult to imagine the world before Newton. There
were conflicting theories about the movements of the heavenly bodies. For
example there was Descartes' theory of swirling corpuscles. And what was light? Colors? Was
it corpuscles shooting through the fluid of the void? How could the
phenomenon of a prism separating white light into colors be explained? At
least people did have the very definite Laws of Kepler to think about.
was not born into poverty. In fact he was born in the modest manor house of
presiding over a few tenant farmers. The original apple tree is still
preserved as an English national monument. After attending the local school,
he studied at Cambridge. The offering in those days was confined to theology
and ancient languages. But one of the theologians at Trinity College
happened to dabble in mathematics, stimulating Newton's interest. And so
during the plague year of 1666 he returned to his manor house, sat under his
apple tree, and invented calculus.
His version of differentials and integrals had lots to do
with geometry, especially triangles. But also with "infinitesimals", or "fluxions".
How does one define something that is infinitely small - whatever that is
supposed to mean - yet not zero? A complicated notation developed which
became part of the traditional English school of mathematics. It was
criticized by philosophers as being meaningless. Yet more recently, as with
all of these things, a whole mathematical theory has been developed - the non-standard
analysis of Abraham Robinson - which, on the face of it seems to
have little to do with "infinitesimals", but on a deeper level does. In
contrast to that we have the usual version of analysis which is taught to
beginning students, and which is beautifully simple, intuitive and
straight-forward. I always enjoyed teaching the first year analysis courses.
When the plague passed away and Newton returned to
Cambridge, he immersed himself in alchemy and religion. He had a small shed
built next to Trinity College where he mixed his chemicals, using lots of
mercury. Heating it up, inhaling the fumes. He became a recluse, filling his
notebooks with religious mumbo jumbo, perhaps becoming mentally unhinged
with mercury poisoning. He convinced himself of the falsity of the Trinity.
Jesus and the Holy Ghost were, for him, subservient to God the Father. But
if it were to become known that he was entertaining such dangerous ideas
then he would perhaps have been burned at the stake. A law was passed,
requiring all members of Cambridge University to take the holy vows and
become official priests of the Church, affirming their belief in the given
dogmas. But, since some of Newton's achievements in mathematics had become
known to well-placed people in London, he was given a special dispensation
from the King, exempting him from this requirement.
Then finally he published his Principia Mathematica,
demonstrating the inverse square law for gravity. The idea that the planets
were carried along by swirls in the aether was banished forever and Newton
became universally admired and honored. There were many beautiful proofs,
for example the proof that a spherically symmetric body exerts the same
gravitational force outside the body as when all the mass were to be
concentrated at the center point: the Shell Theorem. His proof relied exclusively on
elementary geometry. Newton spent much time on the problem of the orbit of
the Moon. The Earth-Moon system acts as a gyroscope in the gravitational
field of the Sun, inducing precession and nutation on the orbit. This is an
example of a 3-body problem. A solution would have enabled the precise
calculation of the Moon in relationship to the distant stars far into the
future, providing navigators with a kind of celestial clock, and thus a
method of determining longitudes at sea. But the complexities of the problem
were beyond him.
Newton had a very difficult personality. Thin-skinned.
Alone. Always ready to find fault, conflict with others. His sworn enemy was
Robert Hooke. When Hooke died, needing another enemy, he settled upon the
Astronomer Royal, Edmund Hayley. Despite this he was honored as President of
the Royal Society; he was the member of Parliament for Cambridge University;
and he was appointed Master of the Mint, becoming wealthy in his lonely old
age, full of religious mysticism.
If I had read this book three years ago I would
have thought that it was a rather overblown, unrealistic science fiction
fantasy and I would have written here that the author would have done well
if she had altered the story of the book to bring it more into contact with
reality, making it more believable. Something like John Ironmonger's Not Forgetting the Whale, which I read two years ago.
I would have written that the book suffers from the error of having too much
confusing and invented jargon, which confuses the plot:
Zoom, mRNA, VAERS, Mandates, Lockdowns,
Social Distancing, Masking, COVID, Legacy Media, Screens
And yet here I am in 2022, living in this world.
Naomi Wolf describes her experiences during the past two
years. She tries to be reasonable, despite the fact that it is so
unreasonable. For example she describes her initial feelings of being
overwhelmed by the constant hysteria on the "news", and then towards the end
of the book she says that while the initial Wuhan version of the corona
virus may have been deadly, now it has evolved into a more benign version.
But that is nonsense. The example of the Diamond Princess, filled with geriatric pensioners,
showed right at the beginning that it was no more than a bad cold. The
criminally corrupt regimen which was then ordered by the world's medical
authorities killed off many people. Those who got sick in nursing homes were
refused treatment; if they got worse they were put into hospitals, knocked
out, and "ventilated", killing them. I don't even want to think about the
gene-therapy injections which so many people have submitted themselves to.
We are told of the conditions which Naomi Wolf observed
in others. The huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The
hopelessness of lonely, isolated people. I have my pension, and thankfully
there was no suggestion that genetic injections would be a condition of
continuing to receive pensions. I continue to get emails from my old account
in the Faculty, and it seems that even now, when the world is supposed to be
emerging from the nightmare, the University still maintains various orders
and mandates. I refuse to read these emails. But I can imagine that if the
Zoom culture persists - the dumbing down of students - then the standards of
the University will gradually decline to the level of some sort of "third
On the subject of Zoom, we are told that the Zoom
company, whatever it is, has its servers in the Chinese Communist world. Ms.
Wolf believes that, as Chairman Mao said, China - the CCP (Chinese Communist
Party) - aims to dominate, "to own", the world by the time of the 100th
anniversary of its founding in 2048. Since all business takes place via
Zoom, we can assume that all of it is being recorded, continuously analyzed
by the CCP to be used later to further its own aims. I don't know if our
University is making progress with any innovations which might be useful for
the CCP, but if so, then China knows about it.
Naomi Wolf is especially upset about all of this masking
and its dreadful consequences for society in general. We recently were in
Holland for a week, and in all that time I didn't see a single mask. But
here in Germany many people still have them on their faces. This must be the
German mentality of following orders. In fact, it was only a year or two ago
that I became aware of the fact that there is something called the
"Ordnungsamt". That is the "Office of Order". The city where we are,
Bielefeld, has a socialist mayor, and he seems to enjoy employing the "Order
Police" for various reasons. The real police are polite, reasonable people.
One hardly sees them at all. Occasionally one does see a car with all the
markings of a police car, and the letters "Polizei" written on the side. But
now, more frequently we see cars with the same markings as a police car, yet
with the letters "Ordnungsamt" on the side. There was never really a strict
"lockdown" here. I just jogged and walked my usual rounds. The supermarket
was open, but only with masks. Then suddenly masks were also required in the
parking lot of the supermarket, and a tearful woman was arrested by the
Ordnungsamt and fined 50 euros. In the winter the local lake froze over
during a prolonged cold spell. Only occasionally, perhaps once every 10
years does this happen. The ice becomes thick and hundreds of happy people
walk out onto it; they skate, play hockey. But that year the socialist mayor
placed his Ordnungsamt police around the lake to arrest any child who dared
to take a step onto the ice. Maybe he, along with his "Green" colleagues,
hated the idea of cold weather since it confounds their narrative of global
And so I have now been sitting here, typing away at this
computer for half an hour, venting my feelings about this whole business.
Naomi Wolf has spent much more time at it than I have, and she has gone into
all of this much more deeply. She describes the banality of evil. Who knows
what goes on in the mind of William Henry "Bill" Gates III? I can imagine
that he is ignorant of much that he has done. For example if we are to
believe the documents which have survived, it would seem that Hitler was
unaware of the Reichskristallnacht until it was well underway, at
which point he tried to stop it. It had been organized by Goebbels who,
having had various extramarital affairs, had been given a "dressing down" by
Hitler, and by this means he hoped to regain the approval of his "Führer".
I immediately turn off the radio or the TV if it begins
emitting "news", and thus I hardly know what the present, seemingly very
weak, socialist chancellor sounds like. He could hardly be worse than Mrs.
Merkel. However I do remember what the present, socialist minister of health
sounded like when I did actually listen to the "news" three or more years
ago. He has an irritating, nasal kind of whining voice. And from what I have
gathered by scanning the headlines of various legacy internet sites, I see
that he would like to reimpose all of the lockdowns, mask "mandates", and
what have you, with the approach of autumn.
In a few weeks I will have finished with my 75th year in
this world, and thus I certainly hope and expect not to have to experience
what Naomi Wolf fears the year 2048 will turn out to be.
The Puritan Princess is Frances Cromwell, the youngest child of the "Lord
Cromwell. So this is England in the 1650s. The English Civil War has
finished, Cromwell has taken on the role of King, but without calling
himself that, and his children are in the roles of Princes and Princesses,
but not being allowed to be called that. Nevertheless, they are addressed as
"Your Highness"; bowed, curtsied, and generally grovelled to, but behind
their backs people say that they are not real aristocrats; a few years ago
they were cooking, washing the dishes, playing in the dirt just like
The author is a historian specializing in this period, so
I assume that the story is as accurate as an historical novel can be. I have
no real idea about the English Civil War. I had thought that it was a time
of complete religious hysteria in which the entire population of England
went mad. But after reading this book it seems that this is not really what
it was about. The characters continually refer to the crimes of the former,
beheaded King, Charles I. Reading his article in the Wikipedia, I
gather that his problem was that he married a Catholic French Princess, thus
upsetting most English people who hated, or perhaps were afraid of the
Catholics. This is understandable, given the history of Bloody Mary, and then the attempts by the Catholic
Spanish to invade England. But in addition to this, King Charles ignored and
dismissed Parliament, considering himself to be possessed of the divine
right to do whatever he pleased. People rebelled against him, and in the
end, after lots of turbulence, civil war, Cromwell and the restoration of
the monarchy with Charles II, the system of constitutional monarchy was
In the book, Oliver Cromwell is depicted as a highly
moral but tolerant man. Not a religious fanatic. Live and let live. But he
did draw the line at music during church services. All sorts of different
Christian churches sprang up: Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and what have
you. Catholics not being particularly welcome. Only the angry Puritans
looked down on everything. Thus the title of the book is a bit confusing
since, from the story we are told, Frances was not a Puritan.
Apart from the Puritans and also the Republicans who
would have preferred to be rid of all the aristocrats, most people were
thankful that Cromwell had taken on the role of king, providing stability
and an end to the chaos of the Civil War. People begged him to assume the
formal title of King. Thus stability would be insured in the future with the
monarchy existing in a new dynasty, based on his family. But Cromwell
hesitated, dithered. Would that be the right thing? Did he really have the divine
Of course that is nonsense. All royal families stem from
some sort of original warlord who slaughtered his way onto the throne.
Divinity comes later. Unfortunately, in the midst of all this, the Lord
Protector Cromwell took to his bed and died. Who knows what it was. Perhaps
some sort of Corona Virus?
England was left in a state of uncertainty. A vacuum
which Nature abhors. Cromwell's oldest surviving son, Richard, attempted to
take on the title of Lord Protector Number 2, but nobody really believed it.
The Puritans and the Army said, "Let there be a Republic" without a king.
But most people wanted a restoration of the monarchy. Would this lead to a
renewed civil war? The situation was resolved by General Monck who led his army from Scotland -
accompanied by general acclaim - to restore the monarchy by bringing Charles
II back from France. And thus the heroine of this book, Frances Cromwell,
was demoted from being a (pseudo)-princess back into normal obscurity.
- Addendum: I am now halfway through a book about malaria, and
I see that it is said there that Cromwell, as well as his successor,
Charles II, died of malaria. On the other hand it is also said that
malaria is difficult to diagnose, even today. So who knows?
The story of the book is a love story of Frances with her
husband Robert Rich. He was indeed a rich aristocrat. A sickly specimen, far
removed from the ideals of military prowess which seems to have been admired
in those violent times, he died soon after marrying Frances. She is
represented as being a torridly passionate lover. This is difficult to
imagine when we gaze at her portrait, but then we are told that it was painted
in the midst of her passionate mourning.
Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith
The author is Professor of History and the Philosophy
of Science at the University of Sydney. He tells us that he is a
philosopher. But living in Sydney with its magnificent harbor and the
crystal-clear waters in many of the bays leading into the Pacific, the idea
of scuba-diving had great appeal. He became fascinated with the lives of the
with their spectacularly colorful displays, and then the octopuses. These are species within the Cephalopoda
class of life. While most cephalopods live a dull, almost plant-like life,
seemingly devoid of any intelligence at all, hiding within their shells, the
cuttlefish, octopuses and to a lesser extent squid, seem to be highly
The book alternates chapters describing biology - and
especially the Tree of Life - and chapters of philosophical speculation. We
learn that multi-cellular life did not begin in the Cambrian epoch, but
rather in the Ediacaren
epoch which directly preceded the Cambrian, being the period 635-538.8
million years ago. It is named in honor of a hill country in South
Australia. We are told that even as long ago as that, in the great tree of
life, the branch which led to us parted ways with the branch leading to the
octopuses. Thus, given that all those ediacarans were so primitive as to be
nothing more than pulsating robots, it follows that intelligence has
developed following two completely independent paths. It is as if the
octopuses are creatures from another world.
The philosophical chapters speculate about what animals
think, feel, experience. Which animals have self-awareness? When did
self-awareness start? One can write thousands of words on such a subject,
leading nowhere. Indeed, while I am self-aware, how do I know that anybody
else is? After all, a robot could just as easily claim such an attribute if
it were programmed to do so. It is my belief that other people are
self-aware. When reading a novel I have the feeling of being within the mind
of the author, however fleetingly. So this strengthens my belief in the
self-awareness of others. Peter Godfrey-Smith tells us that the "inner
voice", expressing words within our minds without saying them out loud,
plays a role in this. Can it be that most people spend their days talking to
themselves? I certainly don't. Walking, or running, or bicycling, and
certainly when playing music, I am not talking to myself. In fact I often
find the inner voice to be an irritation, distracting me from the experience
Well into the story, the author tells us of the time he
first decided to start writing the book, reading up on the biology of
cephalopods. He was shocked to discover that cuttlefish and octopuses have
very short lives. They only live 2 or 3 years before falling apart, dying of
old age. This seems crazy. Why do they have all this intelligence? What is
it for? Surely being intelligent means you spend time learning new things in
order to apply them in later life to constructive purposes. But if there is
no later life then it seems meaningless. He observes the sad sight of
friendly cuttlefish he has been diving with for months gradually losing
their color, white splotches taking over, sickness and decay after such a
short life; a time when a human baby is just beginning to find words to
speak, with a whole life ahead into the future.
We are told of the theory of aging of Medawar and Haldane. Why is it that octopuses live
just a couple of years while, at the same time, the Yelloweye rockfish lives to be 120 years old? The
standard idea is that it is either (i) the cells of the body succumb to
random errors and chaos, or (ii) the telomeres get too short. But if (i) is the case, why
do the cells of the rockfish fail to have random errors? In fact bacteria
divide themselves and continue to grow for millions of years without falling
prey to random errors. As for (ii), again, why don't the telomeres of
rockfish get shortened? Could it be that they lengthen themselves with telomerase? This seems very hypothetical. In contrast,
Medawar and Haldane's theory explains it all nicely.
The idea is that all of life is subject to mutations.
Some are good, most are bad. The bad might make life difficult for the given
organism right at the beginning of life, so it dies off and the mutation is
eliminated. But some mutations might only effect the organism when it is
older. Some might even have the effect of being good when the organism is
young and then be bad when it is old. These bad mutations will be eliminated
from the gene pool only slowly, or not at all. And so over time our genome
becomes filled with mutations which destroy life after a given time. For
this reason we will never be able to "conquer" aging. I suppose most people
find this to be depressing. They hope for an elixir, giving eternal life
here on Earth, and so they prefer to think about telomeres and imaginary
Why do cuttlefish and octopuses have short lives? Because
back in the mists of time, hundreds of millions of years ago, they lost the
protective shells which kept their cousin cephalopods from being eaten by
big fish. Instead evolution gave them a quick, intense life which soon ends
with the ravishes of fish. They quickly mate and produce huge numbers of
eggs for the next generation. In contrast rockfish are poisonous and they
live in deep water, making them unattractive as prey.
This book is concerned with malaria. Sonia Shah is
an American of Indian descent. At the beginning she tells us that as a child
she often visited her relatives in India, sleeping in the hot, muggy
atmosphere under a mosquito net next to her cousins who peacefully slept in
the free air, oblivious to the swarms of mosquitoes. And when she had grown
up and become a journalist, telling her relatives that she was planning to
write a book about malaria, they asked why? Malaria is nothing. It is like
the common cold. Why write a book about that? And then people she meets in
the epicenter of malaria, in the Heart of Africa, say the same thing.
On the other hand she tells us how many millions die of
malaria. It all seems rather confusing. What is she trying to tell us? The
narration is not helped when we find a sentence like this in the text:
What is a "logarithmic increase"? Does the author know what a logarithm is,
and why such a sentence is gobbledygook?
- With each logarithmic increase in viral load, the probability that
an HIV-infected person will transmit the virus during sexual
intercourse increases by nearly 250 percent.
If I understand what she is trying to tell us, it seems
that the situation is such that if people survive an initial onslaught of
malaria, then there is some immunity. But it wears off so it is necessary to
have a renewed infection every year or so, and these infections are then
like a common cold. Something which people have been living with for
hundreds of thousands of years.
We are told about the attempts to conquer malaria. For
example Michael Crichton is quoted as saying that Rachael Carson, the author
of Silent Spring, was responsible for killing more people than did
Adolf Hitler, since her book led to a movement to ban DDT. Yet the book
describes in detail the history of DDT. The business of thin egg shells may
indeed have been pure fantasy, but the reality was that the mosquitoes
became immune to DDT. When it was sprayed everywhere in the 1950s it also
killed off lots of other insects as well. This led to unintended
consequences which often seemed worse than the malaria it was supposed to be
- but wasn't - defeating. Then there is the traditional quinine, which still
seems to be the treatment of choice. Other drugs had great effect, but soon
the malarial microbes in their various forms became immune to them. The book
seems to be saying that malaria becomes a problem especially when people
disrupt the environment, changing things. The mosquitoes and the malaria
immediately take advantage of the new situation.
I was surprised to learn that malaria was endemic in
England and in New England, as well as in northern Europe, even during the
Little Ice Age. Exactly why these regions are now free of malaria was not
clearly described. Could it make a comeback, with all the changes in modern
life we are now experiencing?
The book was written well before the corona hysteria of
the last few years. So perhaps it is understandable that the author writes
in positive ways about the so-called "Gates Foundation". But the fact is
mentioned that the efforts of William Henry "Bill" Gates III, and perhaps
his (ex-?)wife, who has allowed her name to be dragged into the whole
business, have not been helpful. The sums of money they throw about has
distorted research and confounded the use of more practical measures.
Judging by her internet homepage, the author, who
is English, seems to produce books at the rate of one per year. She will
soon have reached the level of productivity of Anthony Trollope, or even of
his mother. Well, I enjoyed this one. It was a nice poignant love story.
Written especially to satisfy English sensibilities.
A World War II bomber is shot down over enemy territory
in Italy. The injured pilot parachutes to safety in an olive grove. He is
nursed back to strength by a beautiful, young, angelic, Italian woman while
hiding in a bombed out hill-top monastery. The bomber pilot is the
heir to a stately home back in England, the title baronet gracing
the family for 400 years. It is said that the monastery was bombed to
smithereens by the Allies. Maybe it was those uncouth Americans. But somehow
it seems to me that the author would have painted a more convincing picture
of the grace of the hero if she had made him a fighter pilot; a modern-day
knight of the air, honorably engaged in mortal combat, rather than simply
dropping bombs. The occupying Germans are all horrible monsters who murder
everybody in any village which is not to their liking. They take all the
food, rape all the women and girls. All of this takes place in December
Then alternatively we have lots of chapters which take
place in 1973. The pilot had returned to England, finding that his father
had died. He was now the titled Sir Hugo. Death duties of a million pounds
made him bankrupt, forcing him to sell the family estates, existing by
becoming a teacher at the boarding school for girls which was established on
the property. He wished to marry his angelic Italian savior, but she seemed
to have disappeared. Embittered, he married the one remaining servant, a 42
year old woman, and they had a daughter who now, in 1973, is alone in the
world; no family, uncertain prospects, recovering from a love affair which
had gone wrong.
The daughter finds some documents of the father and
decides to find out what happened back then in Tuscany. She travels to the
tiny village where the angelic savior had lived. Everything is wonderful.
The climate is wonderful. The people are so wonderfully warm, not like cold
England. The food is wonderful. She finds a room in a farm outside the
village with a wonderful, loving Italian mama, together with the recently
married daughter and baby. The Italian mama calls her mia cara. The
mama teaches her how to cook.
But she finds out about the dark secret. The most
powerful man in the village betrayed the brave partisans back then in 1944.
Now, in 1973, he tries to shoot the daughter, our heroine, in order to
prevent her from exposing the Truth, but he falls to his death in a dramatic
scene. She falls in love with the son of the angelic savior, finding a
long-lost painting of Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps they live happily ever
The author is a young paleontologist who would like
to describe for us what it would be like to be transported back millions of
years into the past and see what it was really like back then. The book
starts off badly. In order to give us a vision of the vast scope of past
time, he imagines the entire history of our planet to be condensed in time
to the duration of one day. Thus 4 1/2 billion years becomes 24 hours. He
then tells us that the last great extinction event before the advent of
humanity - the end of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago - in this
"day" of the earth, occurred at just 21 seconds before midnight. All of
human history took place in the last 2 thousands of the last second of the
...I thought, Wow! Imagine that. I couldn't wait to tell
But wait a minute. To make the calculation easier, let us
say that the earth is 4.8 billion years old. Or 4,800 million years. Divided
by 24 gives 200 million years per hour. Thus 65 million years becomes:
60 ÷ (200/65) = 19 minutes and 30 seconds
before midnight. A million years takes 18 seconds. So humanity has been here
for a couple of seconds. It isn't as wild as we had thought.
And then there are more mistakes. It is asserted that red
light has a shorter wavelength than blue. And again, that a column of water
a square meter in cross section and a kilometer high weighs only 10 tons.
That the slowing down of the rotation of the Earth is due to friction. Well,
yes, that is ultimately true. It is the tidal effect of the Moon's
gravitation and the "friction" of the turbulence of the water in the tides -
and even the minute friction in the deformations of the solid Earth, and the
Atmosphere - retarding them slightly, which produces a dragging effect from
the Moon, slowing down the Earth's rotation.
All of this makes me sympathize with the author, Thomas
Halliday. He doesn't seem to have had much to do with physics. And he has
had no editor to go carefully through his manuscript, checking for such
blunders, proofreading things. Instead he has been on a lonely quest, typing
his thoughts into his computer, emailing his manuscript, alone, to a cold,
lifeless publishing company. Such is the fate of modern man.
Reading on from chapter to chapter we soon discover that
the book is almost exclusively concerned with paleontology. I had a look
through the bookshelves here, among the cobwebs in the back, but couldn't
find the textbook on paleontology which I had as a first year student taking
the geology course all those years ago at the Australian National
University. This book certainly describes many more fossils than were known
in those days, and in a much more flowery language than the dry tome I had
to study. There seem to be a number of sites where the finds of fossils are
particularly rich, and so the book takes us back, chapter for chapter, to
ever more scenes of "deep time", describing in little vignettes how one
creature with an incomprehensible latinized name lurks in the bushes or
forests to eat another creature with a different latinized name. Each
chapter is preceded by a picture of the positions of the continents:
Gondwanaland, Laurasia, and what have you, as they drift about upon the
Earth's surface. Back in 1966, the professors of geology at the ANU
pooh-poohed the notion of continental drift as being nothing more than
I was disappointed, since I had thought that the book
would be concerned with other things. After all, if the existence of the
Earth is reduced to one day, then the last chapter (but one) of this
book only describes the things at 550 million years ago. According to our
previous calculation, this is at 9:15 in the evening of our Earth's
day. What about all the time in the early morning hours, the dawning of the
light of day, lunch-time, an afternoon nap, having dinner, avoiding the
evening "news"? It is only at a quarter past nine in the evening, when we
are gradually getting sleepy, tired of all the events of the day, that this
book starts to say something about the last hours. A time when we are
already sleeping into the night.
Well, OK. It is a paleontology book, and there is
practically nothing fossil-wise to find before 9:15 pm. But imagine the huge
explosion when something hit the Earth in the early morning, pulverizing it
to eventually fall back into the Earth-Moon system. Then what was it like
when the oceans first condensed from an atmosphere which must have been as
hellish as that of Venus. Imagine the first life in the seas, gradually
developing itself over all those unimaginable hours in the middle of the
day. And then late in the day, what did the dramatic transformation of the
atmosphere into a mixture containing vast amounts of that highly reactive -
one might almost say poisonous gas - free oxygen, look like? The book merely
skips over the Snowball Earth phase of things. Perhaps this is because it
doesn't really fit into the standard narrative, endlessly drummed into us
via the "news", which the author, sadly, feels compelled to repeat.
The fact of the matter is that in the spectrum of light
which CO2 absorbs, the atmosphere is already practically opaque. The band is
saturated. This despite the fact that CO2 is presently only about 0.04% of
the atmosphere. We might imagine a vast football stadium with 100,000
spectators; 0.04% of that is just 40 people vaguely scattered about in the
crowd. Even doubling or tripling the amount will hardly increase the
absorption. After all, opaque is opaque. We can see that there is
practically no correlation between the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and
temperature over "deep" geological time by looking at this graph:
which appears here. Chapter 14 of the book describes the plunge into
the depths of an ice age at 444 million years ago. While the book repeatedly
tries to find greenhouse gasses to explain warm periods (which, as we see,
represent most of the history of the past 600 million years), it is
remarkably vague about the 444 million year event.
The chaos of the weather is reflected in the chaos of
geological climate. What is the influence of the Sun, the Moon, the planets,
the movement through the galaxy, the positions of the continents, volcanoes?
And surely water, with all its interesting properties is a primary
influence: its solid state floats on its liquid state, its vapor is lighter
than air, it forms clouds which are driven in a chaotic dance by the heat of
the sun, raining, producing storms. The spectrum of absorption of its vapor
is much broader than that of CO2.
Returning to the vision of the "day" of the Earth,
looking at the last 18 seconds before midnight, we see the Earth covered in
ice, and then in the blink of an eye - a tenth of a second - the ice melts
and freezes again. This blinking on and off went on quickly up to about 9
seconds before midnight, perhaps once every second, and then it slowed down
with longer duration ice periods of about 2 seconds between blinks. We are
now at midnight, the end of a blink. What will happen when the eyelid comes
up in a fraction of a tenth of a second after midnight? Will we see ice, or
will we suddenly, absurdly, see a hot, burning Earth? People have always
believed that they are the most important things in Creation, filled with
god-like powers. But in reality the Earth will go on as ever before,
oblivious to the minor disturbances in the blinking of an eye represented by
this ephemeral episode of humanity living on the planet.
The opening scene in a third-rate English
university (whatever that is): It is the first day of term. A big party for
the beginning students. Jack comes from a rich background. The family has
owned its stately home, surrounded by miles of gardens and woodlands, for
many generations. Jack has attended an expensive private school, but has
done nothing, getting dreadful marks, expecting to be admitted to Oxford
owing to the opulent financial contributions of his father. But it no longer
works that way. And so now he stands, disgruntled, apart, asking himself why
he is here. Then he sees Jill across the room, and she sees him. It is
instant love. They drown themselves in cheap alcohol, go outside in a
drunken stupor, lay down on the grass and have sex.
Jill does not have the same background as Jack. She is
middle-class; her family is tolerant. And so university continues to
graduation as an almost continuous orgy of drink and sex. Jill studies
literature, reads lots, is enthusiastic in the seminars, and gets good
marks. Jack, under pressure from his father, was forced to enroll in the
business course, which he hates, and thus he goes to none of the lectures.
But between various sessions in bed he confesses to Jill that he vaguely
enjoyed history at school. So he changes to the history course, and
encouraged by Jill, actually does reasonably well.
After graduation Jack's family buy the couple an
expensive apartment in London. Jill is a school teacher of literature. Jack
is a trader at a large financial firm in the City of London. Jack must work
12, 13,...,15 hours each day, raking in piles of money, coming home to drown
himself in drink. Jill finds her job as a teacher to be more challenging
than she had thought. Everything goes downhill, and so they split in the
midst of huge public scandals. Jack of a financial nature; Jill of a sexual
nature. They disappear in their own separate ways. Both are lost, have no
contact with one another.
It is now years later. Jill is Teaching English As A
Foreign Language in Venice. Jack is organizing cultural travels to Italy for
middle-aged women. Everything is proper and sober. They suddenly meet in St.
Mark's Square. After a few tentative fits and starts they get together,
engaged in the business of bringing English tourists to Italy. Will they
live happily ever after?
The book was first published about five years ago. Before
the year 2020. Corona hysteria would have ruined them again. Would Jack's
sexually degenerate, overbearing father who had earlier disowned him, step
in to save them? Who knows? Who cares? Still, I enjoyed this little
The author journeyed across Russia, from
Nikolajewsk at the mouth of the Amur river in the far East of Siberia to St.
Petersburg in the year 1866, and this book describes what he experienced.
(It can be downloaded at Gutenberg.org.)
Actually he first set off from New York with a steamer to Panama, then
overland to the Pacific side, and then another steamer to San Francisco.
After a few days he boarded a further steamer to cross the Pacific to
Avatcha Bay in Kamchatka. Then finally he was aboard another steamer
chugging about in the Sea of Okhatsk for weeks at a time before finally
arriving at Nikolajewsk. These steamers were either side-paddle affairs, or
else "screw" (that is to say, propeller) ships, but with masts and a full
set of square-rigged sails to help, or even replace the steam engine when
the wind was blowing in the right direction.
But the journey really begins along the Amur. The author
had done much traveling in the United States: in the California Gold Rush,
as an officer in the Civil War, and as a correspondent for the New York
Herald newspaper. It is summer. He compares the vast vistas of the
Amur River with landscapes he has traveled through in the United States. The
Mississippi, California. But he finds that they cannot be compared to the
beauty of Eastern Siberia. He is everywhere an honored guest, describing the
protocol at each of the towns he visits. First he visits the Governor, the
Mayor, or the Chief of Police, then various dignitaries. He is invited to
banquets and is everywhere celebrated as an American, a friend of Russia.
The champagne and caviar flows freely and toasts are celebrated for the
honored visitor from the United States.
It is only vaguely stated in which capacity he is
traveling. Is he a representative of the Russian-American Telegraph Company?
He keeps telling us about the telegraph; how it is planned to lay wires
under the Bering Strait and then continue on through all the thousands of
kilometers to Saint Petersburg and the European network. At one stage he
tells us that he had planned on making a large detour from the middle of
Siberia through Mongolia to Peking, but he failed to obtain permission from
the Chinese. Apparently the Chinese, who he often derides as being ignorant,
superstitious people in contrast to the civilized, refined Russians, failed
to give him permission to travel in China. We read that a short telegraph
line of just a few miles which had been built in Peking was torn down by an
angry mob, afraid that the messages it conveyed were being carried by evil,
invisible demonic beings. On the other hand, reading the Wikipedia entry of
the author, we see that he was employed by a New York newspaper; perhaps
they were interested in his stories of exotic places.
The distances are vast. He journeys along the Amur for
1500 km or more in a government steamer. For much of this distance it forms
the border between Russia and China. He is privileged to have a private
cabin, but he tells us that he is constantly being bitten by bedbugs and
various other insects. Eventually, reaching the point where the river no
longer affords navigation, he transfers to carriages drawn by three horses:
troikas. His traveling papers, endorsed by the governors of the provinces
through which he passes, are of the highest category, giving him priority
over other travelers. At each station along the way he is provided with new
horses and a local driver. The roads, or tracks, are often difficult, muddy,
narrow, yet whenever possible he is carried along at a gallop, traveling
continuously, night and day, sleeping in the carriage. After many further
hundreds of kilometers he reaches Irkutsk, on the western side of the Baikal
I had thought that Lake Baikal was completely cut off
from the rest of the water in the world, but this is not the case at all.
Knox describes the broad river flowing out of Lake Baikal past Irkutsk, the
Angara, as being nearly a kilometer wide. Looking at things with Google
Maps, we see that there is now a huge hydroelectric dam and there are
further such dams downriver along the Angara. But it is merely a tributary
to the great Yenisei River.
The author spends some time in Irkutsk, being again
celebrated everywhere as the visiting American. The people are cultured,
life is opulent. Gradually winter is approaching and he sets off in a
sleigh, again drawn by troikas of horses and dashing drivers, from station
to station, crossing thousands of kilometers, eventually arriving by
Christmas at the end of his journey.
German television often used to broadcast documentaries
where a correspondent would travel about in Russia, showing the magnificent
scenery, interviewing people. Just recently an acquaintance told us of a
trip he had in 2008, bicycling more than a thousand kilometers from
somewhere in Siberia to Lake Baikal. A wonderful holiday. And yet that is
all forbidden now. The atmosphere has been poisoned. At the time I am
writing this, I am in the middle of reading The Devil's Chessboard,
describing the deeds of Allen Dulles and his CIA, which have turned the
United States of America into what it has now become. And German television
follows faithfully. When the crisis in Ukraine exploded, a female professor
of history at a German university appeared on television and stated that (1)
the history of Russia has absolutely nothing to do with the Kievan Rus of the Middle Ages, and (2) Ukraine is an
independent country with a long-standing, ancient history.
Years ago I got a very interesting book, The Times
Atlas of European History. It is a collection of maps, showing the
changing boundaries of the regions and countries of Europe through time.
There is a map for each major new development. For example the Kievan Rus
have a large territory, stretching up to Novgorod and the area of
present-day Moscow in the map of the year 1003. The map of 1030 shows them
retaining this, and even expanding it slightly. But then in the map for 1095
the whole thing has collapsed into places with names such as Smolensk,
Chernigov, Polotsk. Each of these territories is bigger then present-day
England. There is also a region named Kiev which extends from the town of
Kiev northwest to include Brest. The part south of Kiev to the Black Sea is
occupied by "Turkic peoples". And so things go on from map to map, every 30,
or perhaps 50 years, up to the present, which is to say the year 1993 when
the Atlas was published. The area north of the Black Sea changes colors and
boundaries wildly from map to map. For example the map for 1430 shows a huge
country called Lithuania occupying the whole of eastern Europe, from the
Black Sea almost up to the Baltic Sea. Thus we understand the present-day
excitement of the people living in that little blob of a land on the Baltic
which also bears the name Lithuania, who say that Ukraine is "really"
theirs. A map or two later, we see an even bigger territory which is a
combination of Poland and Lithuania. Gradually Poland squeezes out much of
Lithuania. But then the map of 1618 shows the Polish part along the Black
Sea being taken over by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. In the 18th
century, Katherine the Great finally defeats the Turks to include this part
into the Russian Empire, which we see in the map for 1789. The map for 1815,
after the Treaty of Vienna, shows the Russian Empire occupying even more
territory, mirroring somewhat the expansion of the United States of America
during this period. Things remained stable as far as Russia is concerned up
to the map for 1914. Of course we know what happened then. The evil of Lenin
and Stalin. A vast killing; murdering, starving to death whole populations
including especially the area which now calls itself Ukraine. Up to, and
including the map for 1940, the name "Ukraine" appears nowhere in this
Atlas. But suddenly in the map for 1942 the name does appear for the first
time. Namely a slanted area from Crimea, northwestward to Brest, is called
Who can blame the people living in the territory which
Lenin had defined to be the "Soviet Republic of Ukraine" in his horrible
"Soviet Union" for welcoming the invasion of the Germans in 1941-42? And how
difficult it must have been for those people to discover that this invasion
was not as benign as they had thought, resulting in further unimaginable
cruelty at the hands of Stalin. Yet the last map of the book, that of 1993,
shows Ukraine as a large country, having been peacefully separated from what
had been Russia for the previous 200 years. We could go on, thinking about
Agreements, and their violation. But in the end I am left with
astonishment that a female professor of history at a modern German
university is prepared to distort history to such an extent in a televised
propaganda program, fearing no consequences for her academic reputation,
whatever it must be.
A light, enjoyable read. A woman in her 30s whose
first name is Natalie realizes that life is running away from her. She works
in a boring job for a telephone company in England, NuLine
Telecommunications, abbreviated NT. She learnes about a possible way to
cheat the system. Some people pay by sending in checks rather than having
their bills automatically subtracted from their bank accounts. These are
small sums which a large company would hardly notice. Rather than writing
out the whole name of the company on the check, some people just write that
it is to be cashed by "NT".
And so Natalie set about to marry some man with a last
name beginning with the letter T. Eventually she married a rather helpless
and pathetic type whose name was Taylor. Then she changed all the checks
which reached her, written out to NT, to NTaylor, cashing the checks in bank
accounts with her new name. Then, using her position in the administration
of the company, she entered the items as having been paid, and in order to
have everything coming out right she debited the amount from the accounts of
large companies which used NT, knowing that nobody would check all the
details of the telephone bills.
This went on for a time with Natalie living it up on the
proceeds of her scam until the day the company computer crashed, forcing
people to go through things by hand. People who had set checks to NT
suddenly were told that their bills had not been paid. Natalie was found
out. And indirectly it was found that her cheating had resulted in the death
of a young woman. Natalie made some surprising moves, but in the end she
resigned herself to a couple of years in jail and the wrath of the aggrieved
father of the girl who had died.
I was reading an article on Proust's In Search
of Lost Time. Is it simply an unreadable collection of obscure
verbiage? No! In fact the article said that it consistes of easily readable,
simple prose which, while holding the record for being the longest novel in
the world, is in fact divided up into seven volumes, or part-novels, which
can be read as if it were, say, a Netflix video series going on through
seven seasons, each of which consists of 12 or 15 episodes of a hour each.
Many people find such series to be absorbing, fascinating, the opposite of
boring. And so I was motivated to give it a try. After all, I totally
enjoyed Yukio Mishima's very impressive The Sea of Fertility, which was made up of four
longish, linked novels.
Well, I must admit that I have given up on Proust after
getting only half way through the first part - which is called Swan's
Way - of his record-breaking novel. The first half of this first part
is concerned with his childhood in the town of "Combray" a bit to the west
of Paris. In fact, Proust grew up in Illiers, which, owing to the fame it
has been given by Proust, now calls itself Illiers-Combray. But of course, as I found out, it is
useless to try following the geography of the story in Swan's Way by
examining the streets of Illiers-Combray via Google Earth. The author's
imagination overcame any such constraints. In any case in the first half of
the book, the country walks the family of the infant Marcel undertook in one
direction (the name of which I can't remember at the moment) are described.
Then the second, or is it the third part of this book, describes the country
walks in the other direction, to the estate of M. Swan. We learn that the
Swan's Way walk was a longer walk, so the family had to prepare more
thoroughly on the days of such a walk. All the servants were alerted,
perhaps carriages prepared, and so forth.
The book begins with long descriptions of how the author
lies in bed as a small child, hoping against all hope that his mother will
come and give him a goodnight kiss. This in long sentences going on for a
half a page or more. The grownups are entertaining one another: the rich
upper crust in a small town. After we finally emerge from these lonely,
infantile, kissless vigils, we learn again over many long pages and
sentences about the leading personalities of the town. But as I say, all of
this became, for me, boring. I'm just not interested in the details of the
snobby, small-town French society of 150 years ago.
And I will admit that I watched every episode of Breaking Bad, right to the end, and enjoyed every bit
of it. So there you are.
The subtitle is: "Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of
America's Secret Government".
There a book called "JFK and the Unspeakable". People
these days write about the "Deep State". What are these things? What is a
"Deep State"? Is it something which we are to contrast with the "Shallow
State"? And what is "Unspeakable"?... Therefore it was refreshing to read
this book which doesn't beat about the bush with such euphemisms. There is
no mystery. These things have a name: The Dulles brothers: John Foster, and
Leaving John Foster aside, Allen was born in 1893. He was
already active in the First World War, being in touch with Lenin when he was
still in Switzerland, prior to his transport across Germany in a railroad
car, to be inserted into Russia as a kind of virus of evil. An evil virus
even worse than Dulles himself. Between the wars Allen Dulles was a lawyer
with the powerful firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, representing the most
wealthy interests of Wall Street. He was not himself independently wealthy,
but he became an intimate part of this circle: the Rockefellers, and so on.
In the Second World War his career, and his shaping of what has now become
of the United States of America, began.
He joined the OSS - the Office of Strategic Services - in
1941, and was set to Bern in Switzerland in 1942. There he did useful
intelligence work for the allied war effort. But in 1945, before the end of
the war, he undertook Operation Sunrise, in direct violation of the
instructions of President Roosevelt. This pattern was repeated as he took
over the newly formed CIA under President Truman. Truman's idea was that it
was to be an agency whose sole purpose was to gather information in order
for the President to be able to make informed decisions. The Dulles brothers
saw communism as the basic evil which must be fought everywhere. Communism
meaning not only Stalin's USSR but also everything else which was opposed to
the interests of the powerful, wealthy elite of Wall Street. For example
Roosevelt's New Deal, and indeed Truman himself were considered to be
opposed to those interests. And so the CIA became a secret organization, a
government within the government, following its own rules which were hidden
from the President and Congress. Assassination, torture became commonplace.
It is horrible to read about much of this.
When Eisenhower became President in 1953, he accepted the
philosophy of the Dulles brothers: constructing huge numbers of atomic bombs
to intimidate the Soviet Union, trying all means to subvert the countries of
Eastern Europe, and subverting and assassinating emerging leaders of
African, Asian, or South American countries which aimed to become
independent of the vested interests of American Capital. Eisenhower was
happy to just let the CIA carry on with its secret activities, leaving him
time to play golf with his wealthy capitalist friends.
I had to laugh about what was said of James Jesus Angleton, who is often portrayed as being
the wily brains of the whole business, universally admired for his wisdom
and intellect. His main role was dealing with counterintelligence. Think of
the Smiley character in the spy stories of John le Carré. I don't know how
successful the character Smiley was in all those novels, but if we were to
give a mark to Angleton's results it would be a minus one. That is to say,
in all his time in the CIA he was unable to find a single mole, but on the
other hand he was unable to recognize his intimate friend, Guy Burgess, as
being the real mole.
...There was in fact a communist spy ring within the US
government, sending information to the Soviet Union during World War II -
the Silvermaster group - and I have something to say about that. I'm in the
middle of reading the next book, which is concerned with the affair, so I'll
tell the story there...
Things came to a crisis when Kennedy was elected
President in 1960. The Bay of Pigs adventure in Cuba was set up to fail with
the expectation that the new President would then be forced into a
full-scale invasion of Cuba, hopefully even using atomic bombs. But Kennedy
was made of sterner stuff and he refused to go along with the plan. Much
effort was devoted to trying to assassinate Castro, often involving American
Mafia killers. There were also arrangements with gangs in Italy, where
Angleton had many contacts, and in France, involving other assassinations.
And thus Kennedy, who openly supported the new leaders in "third world"
countries, as well as a peaceful dialogue with the Soviet Union, was
The CIA of Allen Dulles was a closed club of the old, New
England, moneyed class: the rich men of Wall Street whose families had been
living in the United States since its founding. But going beyond the scope
of the book and thinking about what the CIA and all the newer three letter
agencies have become, it would seem that they have gradually been
transformed in character. Whereas the CIA was dominated by a traditional
Anglo-Saxon, Christian culture, that has been replaced by the "Neo-Cons",
representing the interests of later Jewish immigration, employing the same
methods but with different objectives.
When I was just 3 or 4 years old, back in about 1950, my
parents had a summer house built at Loveladies, on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. You
can have a look via Google Maps, typing in the name "Loveladies". It is the
thinnest part of Long Beach Island, and our house was on the Barnegat Bay
side, near Harvey Cedars. Looking at things using Street View, I see
Loveladies has been completely transformed in the 70 years between then and
now. In those days the few houses were simple affairs, built of 2x4 wooden
frames and plywood. Now it seems that millionaires are putting their
millions into elaborate dwellings, surrounded by high fences, imagining that
loose sand is as good a foundation as solid bedrock.
The contractors for our house were Mr. Ullmann and the
Silvermasters. Over a few years, the house was expanded with one wing or
another added on, and then when I was still in grade school and my father
was near to retirement we moved all year round into the Loveladies house.
Mr. Ullmann and the Solvermasters had quite a nice big house on the ocean
side of the island in the dunes, containing a few elegant pieces of art and
mementos, a bit further down, perhaps even in Harvey Cedars. If I had been
asked a week or two ago, before having read the last book, as well as this
one, straining those memories of what I had understood all those years ago,
I would have said that my understanding was that Mr. Ullmann had been a
professor of physics, or chemistry, or something at the University of
California, and yet for some reason he had been targeted with the hysteria
and had thus lost his job. Mr. and Mrs. Silvermaster were Russian
aristocrats who had escaped the horror of communism in the 1920s. I think my
mother, who had gone to school in England and had spent years in Italy and
France, was especially friendly with Mrs. Silvermaster as being one of the
few cultured people in that wilderness of modern America.
But now I know about the true story of Mr. Ullmann and both Mr. Silvermaster and Mrs. Silvermaster. How interesting! During World War
II they were giving lots of information to Elizabeth Bentley, the subject of
this book, who passed it on to the Soviet Union. But after all, the Soviet
Union was an ally of the United States in that war, and in the time before
that, the Great Depression, many people thought that capitalism was dead,
and some sort of socialism, communism, was the only way out of the suffering
many people experienced and the extreme riches which accumulated to the few.
Mr. Ullmann certainly fitted this picture. Mr. Silvermaster was born to a
Jewish family in Odessa, which in those days was an integral part of Tsarist
Russia. The traditional antisemitism drove such people into revolutionary
activities and communism. Mrs. Silvermaster was indeed the daughter of an
ancient Russian aristocratic family who had to flee Russia in the aftermath
of the revolution. Perhaps her communism was only a consequence of the love
of her husband.
The existence of the Silvermaster Spy Ring was revealed
when Helen Bentley went to the FBI to confess everything, thus hoping to
save herself from possible assassination by Soviet agents. Yet Bentley was a
drunk, a loose living woman, and her testimony was sometimes contradictory,
sometimes invented. The FBI hoped to obtain confirmation of her evidence by
making her into a double agent, but she soon blew that cover. The members of
the Silvermaster group held together, and J.Edger Hoover, the head of the
FBI, decided to drop possible charges against them to preserve Elizabeth
Bentley as a credible witness for other cases, in particular that of the Rosenbergs.
And so Mr. Ullmann and the Silvermasters were lucky to be Scott free to
start a new life on Long Beach Island.
I can remember once visiting them and just putting our
dog into the runway together with the Silvermasters' dog. Our dog was less
than a year old, and as a child in those days I couldn't imagine the
consequences, the rapidity with which dogs reach maturity. This was in 1960,
and some months later we children were staying with the Silvermasters when
their dog was in the process of giving birth to a liter of puppies, and at
the same time Hurricane
Donna was passing over Long Beach Island. They had wanted to leave the
island, but they were afraid of the consequences for their dog. The eye of
the storm passed right over us. During the calm in the eye I wanted to go
out onto their platform above the dunes to see the storm waves on the beach.
Mrs. Silvermaster was reluctant, but then she did let us go out before the
storm renewed from the other direction. It was a foggy sort of calm in the
eye so we could not see the circle of storm clouds overhead, but the wild
ocean waves were tremendous. Another time I remember Mrs. Silvermaster
asking me what I knew of the Byzantine Empire. I knew nothing, and she must
have clucked her tongue at the dismal state of education in America.
Hurricane Donna was nothing compared with the Ash-Wednesday Storm of 1962. By this time our family had
sold the Loveladies house and had moved over to the mainland at Barnegat
where my father had built a marina as his project in retirement. After the
storm he went across the bay in a boat with some other people to look at the
destruction, and he told us that the ocean had broken right through the
island at Loveladies, washing away our old house. It was bad luck for the
people who had bought the house, whoever they were, but such is to be
expected if you build on sand. We had lost contact with Mr. Ullmann and the
Silvermasters. (Or did their construction company build our house at
Barnegat?) Examining their Wikipedia pages it is clear that they must have
survived. I was well away from them, so I expect they had no more dog
problems, and they were able to escape the storm.
But I wonder if my parents were aware of the interesting
espionage past of Mr. Ullmann and the Silvermasters. If so, why didn't they
Rather than reading a newspaper, these days I look at a number
of internet sites in the morning, in particular that of "off-guardian".
There was an amusing, satirical article by the author, leading me to find
out more about him, and especially to read this book. He tells us that both
he and his wife are "ecophilosophers". They are Australians, and we are told
that the author obtained a Ph.D. degree in "environmental philosophy",
presumably at some sort of Australian university. I was surprised that an
"ecophilosopher" would be published at off-guardian.org, but on the other
hand the author seems to be a more practical person, not tilting at
windmills or worshiping the sun. After all, the real environmental
problems are caused by the toxic mining and manufacturing of all of those
batteries, solar cells and windmills, which take place in China and other
such places, well removed from the hoards of people who follow what their
televisions tell them to do and vote for the socialists and the greens.
Anyway, this book describes the experiences of the author
and his wife during a few years they spent living in the remote countryside
of northern Portugal. We were in Portugal for a couple of weeks a few
summers ago. Driving from the airport at Lisbon south along the motorway, it
seemed that the entire country consisted of nothing more than a plantation
of cork oak trees. But it seems that in the north, more traditional forms of
agriculture are practiced. The Griffins bought a house on a hill overlooking
a valley near the Lima river. There are lots of neighbors, and they are all
described in the book. They seem to be older people, poor, still working the
land as ever - but with old diesel tractors belching clouds of smoke. The
Griffins find people who can speak English and who translate things for
them. It seems that they lived there for 5 or 6 years, yet they tell us that
they never learned to speak Portuguese! How incredibly lazy of them. I would
like to accuse the author of the lack of intellectual curiosity which must
be a characteristic of a Ph.D. program in environmental philosophy, but his
article in off-guardian and this book tend to absolve him of such an
accusation. As a sort of apology to the neighbors who were forced to
communicate in their half-learned school English, the chapters of this book
are titled with Portuguese words which the author must have found in a
Portuguese-English dictionary. And at the end of the book is a glossary of
Portuguese words. The first word of the title of the book, namely "Javali"
is the Portuguese word for "wild boar".
And so we read about life in northern Portugal. There are
lots of wild boar. A plague of them. The people hunt them using large packs
of hunting dogs. The dogs are kept in cages and bark all the time, day and
night. After a short time the Griffins can stand it no longer. They want to
sell the house and get out, away from this continuous barking. But nobody
wants to buy it. Perhaps they eventually grew accustomed to the barking in
the same way that people who have a grandfather clock gradually fail to hear
the constant tick tocking. They tell the neighbors that they are writers,
writing about environmental philosophy. (Looking things up I do not see that
the author has had a prodigious literary output.) They plant vegetables on
their plot of land, earning the approval of the neighbors, and they protest
when some trees near their house are cut down, even going to the police. It
is explained to them that the trees are a fire hazard owing to the frequent
bush fires in the hot Portuguese summers. A lesson their Australian
countrymen could well take to heart.
Throughout the book the elegant young figure of Madalena,
riding bareback astride her magnificent horse, hair flowing in the breeze,
fascinates the author. Maybe not so much his wife. And so it was an
enjoyable book to read.
This is a kind of murder mystery which takes place in Japan,
the home of the author. According to the blurb it sold millions of copies
and has been translated into myriad languages. Right at the beginning we
learn about the details of the murder. The cruel ex-husband of a woman has
become destitute. She hides from him but he follows her, demanding money.
The young daughter tries to fight him off and the woman strangles the
intruder with an electrical cord. But then the neighbor knocks on the door,
having heard the commotion. He is secretly in love with the woman, and he
offers to fix everything.
We are told that this neighbor is a mathematician. He
tells the woman and her daughter exactly what they are to do, but the
details of his plan are not revealed to us until the end. The police
inspector who is responsible for solving the crime is led down a false path,
but he has a friend who is a physicist who often helps him out on difficult
cases. It turns out that the physicist and the mathematician were friends at
university. So it is a battle of wits.
The idea that a mathematician is capable of instantly
coming up with a diabolical solution to a problem may be something an
outsider could imagine, but I think most mathematicians are slow, methodical
thinkers, quite different from the figure in this book.
The author is best known for his Leatherstocking
Tales, especially The Last of the Mohicans, describing the French
and Indian War to the west of the old New England colonies in Upstate New
York at the end of the 18th century. Somewhere I think I read that Cooper
had never set foot west of the Hudson. On the other hand, as a young man he
was a sailor and a midshipman in the United States Navy for about five
years, giving us the feeling that he will be well suited for telling us a
tale of the sea... The novel is loosely based on the story of John Paul Jones.
It would seem that Jones is considered to be a hero of
the United States Navy. His remains are to be found in a marble and bronze sarcophagus enshrined in a special hall of the United
States Naval Academy, to be worshiped by eager naval cadets. Yet reading his
Wikipedia page we discover that there are aspects of his life which are less
than that which we might hope to be the attributes of the pure, immaculate
American warrior. He was a Scotsman who as a boy went to sea. His name was
John Paul. The Jones part was added for some unexplained reason later,
perhaps to hide his true identity. He worked on merchant and slave ships,
and then on one voyage in 1768 when the captain and first mate died of
yellow fever, he became captain, continuing as such at the wishes of the
owners of the ship. In 1770 he flogged one of the members of his crew so
brutally that the victim died. He was jailed in Scotland, but allowed to
escape. Then just a year or two later, commanding another merchant ship, he
killed a seaman with a sword. He tried to hide in the American colony of
Virginia. His movements there are unclear, but in 1775 he volunteered for
the newly formed Continental Navy. His exploits in the American War of
Independence, or Revolutionary War, are described in the Wikipedia. We learn
of insubordination; he must have been a very unpleasant character. The
exploit which is the basis for the present novel involved sailing to England
and landing a party ashore with the aim of kidnapping some nobleman to
ransom against American prisoners. After the war he was sent to Europe, and
he soon entered service in the Russian Navy. Not long afterwards he was
accused of raping a 10 year old girl. He claimed innocence on the basis of
having paid her. Catherine the Great was not amused and he ended up in Paris
where he died in 1792.
In this novel of James Fenimore Cooper, the Pilot is John
Paul Jones, although his name is not specifically mentioned. It is a rather
silly romance with the two heroes being two young officers on a pair of
American Navy ships near the east coast of England. They are in love
respectively with two beautiful young cousins who are being held in a manor
house near the coast, away from their native Virginia. And so with much
conflict, loss of blood, violence, storms, reefs, shipwrecks, the two young
ladies are carried away to live happily ever after with their dashing young
American naval officers. The Pilot, after navigating a large frigate out of
an absurdly impossible situation, removes himself from most of the book to
merely lurk about from time to time and disappear in the final pages. The
dialogue was as ridiculous as the plot, and now having finished the book I
wonder why I persevered to the end.
Banks, by Grantlee Kieza
This is a biography of Joseph Banks, the young botanist who sailed with
Captain Cook on his first voyage of exploration. The primary purpose of the
voyage was to measure the transit of Venus in 1769 across the surface of the
Sun in order to determine the distance of the Sun from the Earth and thus
the true dimensions of the Solar System.
When reading the book, lying in bed thinking about going
to sleep, I asked myself how that actually worked. There is the method
illustrated in this picture, which would be most relevant for a pair
of observations taken as far north and as far south as possible, for example
in Spitsbergen and South Africa. It would have worked well if Venus crossed
the Sun near the bottom or the top, but not well if the crossing was near
the Sun's equator. (I don't know what the actual situation was in 1769.) And
anyway, Captain Cook was sent to Tahiti, which is near the Earth's equator,
so obviously a different method of establishing the parallax was being used
as well. For this the obvious method would be to have an exact correlation
of the times at the different points of observation. These days that is no
problem. We have mobile telephones and whatnot, and they are linked to
atomic clocks of stupendous accuracy. But in 1769 they only had mechanical
chronometers which, in the year of voyage from England to Tahiti would
certainly have gotten out of synchronization by many seconds, if not
minutes, making the observations useless. Then it seemed to me that that
they really only had to relate the time of the transit of Venus to the local
time of day. This allows a correlation between different observers, since we
know how fast the Earth rotates. However that would depend upon having a
very accurate value for the longitude of Tahiti. In fact the best estimate
for that would be gotten by finding the local time of the transit of Venus.
A circular argument, leading nowhere. So I went to sleep... But now I find
an explanation of Halley's method. One need only measure the time it
takes for the transit across the sun. Then owing to the fact that the
transit takes about 5 hours, we see that an observer is rotated part way
around the Earth during that time. This gives effectively different baseline
lengths for observers at different points near the equator, enabling the
Well, Banks wasn't really interested in all of that.
In the book we are told of his immense riches. But then
being more specific, we are told that his income during this time was about
£7,000 per year. About 200 times the income of a simple workman. In today's
terms, if a simple workman gets $25,000, then 200 times that would be 5
millions per year. For all the thousands of billionaires in the world these
days, that is peanuts. And even thinking about the characters in Trollop's
novels, £7,000 is considered at most to be an average sort of amount for a
person of any importance. So the book exaggerates things a bit here. Banks
distinguished himself by spending his few thousands on buying a place on
Cook's naval boat, together with some assistants to draw scenery and collect
biological samples of things. He comes across as a pleasant, athletic,
likable sort of person, and we see this in the portraits he had painted of himself shortly after the
Upon his return to London, the newspapers were filled to
overflowing with his praises, his exotic discoveries. It was the talk of the
town, and it went to his head. As if the Endeavor was his ship, and
Captain Cook was merely his servant, obediently following his directions.
Before leaving, three years before, he had - more or less - engaged himself
to Harriet Blosset, a beautiful heiress. She had waited in chaste
submission. Yet he dumped her, causing something of a scandal in London
society. Perhaps his many experiences of nubile Tahitian maidens had given
him a change of heart. Or perhaps he had decided to live a happy life,
independent of London high society. One way or another, in the end he
married Dorothea Hugessen, hardly a great beauty, but full of
life and a great companion, giving him a happy but sadly childless marriage.
With the success of Cook's first voyage it was decided to
sail again, this time aimed at looking for the supposed continent in the
South Pacific which people thought would make the map of the world look
somewhat more balanced. Banks took total control of the project despite the
fact that it was being organized and financed through the Royal Navy. He had
the ship altered to his specifications, but when it was taken for sea
trials, the pilot declared it not to be seaworthy. And so in a fit of anger,
Banks said he would have nothing more to do with it, renting a ship to take
him on a late summer cruise to Iceland and the Scottish islands, letting
Cook sail off to further adventures and discoveries with other scientists
Banks became the president of the Royal Society. At first
it was said that he, an amateur, a mere collector of curiosities, did not
deserve the position which such an eminent figure as Issac Newton had
filled. But he became universally liked and respected, and he remained the
dominant figure of British science for 40 years or more. He was especially
the driving figure in the establishment of the first penal colony in
Australia, and then he guided the early development of Australia to become
the thriving country which it is now.
Everywhere there seems to be much praise for the sea novels of
Patrick O'Brian, and having now just recently read a couple of books filled
with stories of the Age of Sail, 200 and more years ago, I thought I'd see
what this one was like. It is the first of a series of 20 novels describing
the career of Jack Aubrey, starting with his adventures fighting the French,
capturing merchant "prizes". Then novel for novel on to number 20, Aubery
advances to become an admiral and perhaps even more. Thus it could be
considered to be a single work, one which is even very much longer than
Proust's Lost Time - more than twice as long - making it by far the
longest novel in the world. I'm not really thinking about reading through
all of those 20 books. But I do see that amazon.com does offer the whole
series as a bound set for about $150, even in the Kindle format. (Yet the
individual titles appear to generally cost less than 150÷20=7.50.) This one
is the first book of the series.
To begin with we are smothered with ancient nautical
jargon and the incomprehensible sailor's slang of those days. I see that in
addition to O'Brian's 20 books, there is book called "A Sea of Words: A
Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O'Brian".
But I can't be bothered to look everything up. According to the Wikipedia
page of Patrick
O'Brian, a silicon valley oligarch, Thomas Perkins, invited O'Brian to have a sail with
him on his 154 foot ketch. Giving O'Brian the wheel, he was astonished to
find that "... his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed,
amazingly, almost nil" and "... he seemed to have no feeling for the wind
and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing
I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea
as a youth were fanciful."
When wading through all of O'Brian's jargon I came upon
his use of the word "bowline". Now I do know what a bowline is. It is a knot. The harder you pull it, the
tighter it gets. It is a good knot for tying up a boat and knowing that it
will hold. As a small child I was only allowed to go sailing by myself after
I was able to tie a bowline and swim some distance by myself. Yet in
O'Brian's usage it seems to refer to some sort of line, or rope, being
pulled fast somewhere on Aubrey's ship. Surely this was a mistake! But then,
having a look in my ancient Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, I find the
definition: "Bowline: 1. Naut. A rope used to keep the weather edge
of the sail taught forward. 2. A bowline knot." So there you are.
Leaving aside much of the jargon, I did become curious
about the fact that some words with normal, "common" meanings seemed to be
referring to types of ships. For example there is the snow and the tartan, In particular a xebec plays a big role in the story. Aubrey's ship in
this first novel is named the Sophie. She is sometimes said to be a brig, but at other times a sloop, thus a brig-sloop.
Anyway, the further we get into the book the less there
is of these strange words and it becomes an interesting adventure story,
filled with violence. The character of Jack Aubery, at least in this first
novel, is based on the real-life character of Thomas Cochrane. Years ago I read a biography of
Cochrane and included it here.
In particular Cochrane was the captain of the Speedy, a brig-sloop with 14
small guns and a crew of 54. In 1801 he single-handedly captured a much
larger enemy xebec-frigate, the El Gamo, with 32 guns and 319 men. Cochrane
led an almost unbelievable life, larger than fiction. I hardly think Patrick
O'Brian can allow his character, Jack Aubery, to do anything approaching
Cochrane's achievements. And I'm now well into the second part of the
narrative: Post Captain.
These are the second and third novels of the series. The story
continues. Jack Aubery is not immediately promoted to Post Captain as a
result of his magnificent victory in the first novel, perhaps owing to the
fact that he had been sleeping with the wife of the admiral at Menorca. The
war has ended - a catastrophe for all these naval types, since they no
longer have the ability to capture "prizes" and advance their careers. But
"Lucky" Jack Aubery has already accumulated lots of prizes in his speedy
little sloop, the Sophie, and so he has rented an expensive country house
somewhere in England where he is hanging out with Dr. Stephen Maturin, the
expert in all things scientific, linguistic, musical, and political. Dr.
Maturin is the owner of a ruined castle in Spain, a magical healer of all
ills, and he is Jack's ship's doctor. They are together with some of the
crew of the retired Sophie, acting as servants for our two heroes. But luck
is a fickle thing when it comes to these prizes. In the good old days of
war, Jack's prize agent was the person in Menorca who took all the captured
ships and people and converted them into money to be paid out principally to
Jack, and less so to his crew. We now learn that the prize agent has
absconded with the money, disappeared, leaving Jack in the lurch. Nobody
knows where he and all the money have gone. And then it turns out that for
some obscure technical reason, one of his prizes was not a legitimate prize.
The owners of that ship have sued Jack for huge sums. He is no longer able
to pay the rent on his stately home; he is now left deeply in debt, hunted
by the law to be thrown into a debtors prison. Needless to say, all of this
departs strongly from the present-day system of naval remuneration.
But before all these debt problems had emerged, he and
Stephen had gotten to know a wealthy family, all women, consisting of the
straight-laced mother, three beautiful, rich, marriageable daughters, one of
which is named Sophia - after Jack's little sloop - and a cousin, Diana, who
had been married in India, but whose husband had died leaving her with
nothing. The mother of the family, worshiping money, held poor Diana in
disrepute. Jack is in love with both Sophia and Diana. Sophia is in love
with Jack. Stephen is in love with Diana who is lukewarm to the whole
business. But when Jack's debts become known, the mother puts an end to all
of this romantic nonsense, bundling her young female charges away to Bath to
be introduced to a set of more appropriate wealthy suitors.
Then the Lord of the Admiralty finally decides to award
Jack the title of Post Captain, warning him that the world is already filled
with Post Captains. The navy has abandoned most of its ships now that the
war is finished, and there are hundreds of frustrated Post Captains on half
pay, more senior than Jack, sitting around England dreaming of a renewed war
and the chance of a new command. But then, as a special honor, Jack is
offered the command of a monstrosity of a ship which doesn't sail properly
and which is so badly built that it is in danger of spontaneously falling
apart and sinking.
There are new developments. Dr. Maturin visits his old
friend, Sir Joseph, who seems to be a bigwig in the Admiralty, but whose
passion is the collection of botanical obscurities. Is this Sir Joseph
Banks? No. It is a person with all the attributes of Banks. But in addition
to all that, our Sir Joseph is the spymaster of England, as well as lots of
other things which we know nothing about. He tells Stephen that Portugal is
planing on forming an alliance with Spain and they will join France in a
renewed war with England. In order to finance all of this, Portugal is
shipping huge amounts of gold and silver bullion from South America in a
convoy across the Atlantic. In order to let his good friend and fellow
botanist have a cut in the proceeds of a prize, Sir Joseph gives Dr. Maturin
the temporary title of Post Captain. And so Jack sets off together with
Stephen and his trusty crew in this monstrosity of a ship and captures the
golden galleon, defying all odds in typically heroic fashion.
At first Jack and Stephen believe that they are now
fabulously rich since they have captured the wealth of Portugal. But no.
Despite the best efforts of Sir Joseph (not Banks), the riches are declared
to be the property of England since a state of war had not technically been
declared at the time of the capture.
And thus we begin the third installment. War has happily
resumed. Jack has been awarded the command of H.M.S. Surprise, a beautifully
sailing frigate, and he is given the task of transporting somebody to become
the ambassador, or consul, or something to Java, way over on the other side
of the world. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Surprise endures the most
extreme storm that ever there was so that Jack can demonstrate his heroic
seamanship and endurance. They make it to Bombay where Stephan indulges in
the joys of the East in the form of a willing 10 year old girl. And then
there is Diana who is also in India. She is dependent upon a powerful
English shipping oligarch who is cruising about India with Diana in tow.
Meanwhile Jack spends his time at the Bombay naval shipyard, having the
storm damage which the Surprise had suffered repaired with the finest Indian
And so they set off for Java. But the ambassador gets
sick and expires in a bay on the Malay shores. Heading back to India and
Diana, they encounter a fleet of East India Company ships cruising gradually
along through the Indian Ocean. There is a roaming squadron of French
warships. So Jack heroically organizes a defense, throwing the Surprise
against all odds, heavily outnumbered and outgunned into the fray,
successfully winning the day. Back in India, Stephen shoots dead his rival,
the shipping oligarch, in a duel. He himself suffers, receiving a pistol
ball lodged in the membrane surrounding his heart. And so, being the heroic
and magical surgeon that he is, he operates upon himself, opening his own
chest, slicing through the flesh using a mirror to guide his knife,
eventually probing the ball, extracting it, and finally sewing himself
together before collapsing in an exhausted heap. He is a pioneer of
self-administered open heart surgery without anesthetics! How farfetched and
ridiculous. In fact earlier in the voyage we were treated to another
ridiculous episode when the ship's crew begin to get sick. Is it
scurvy? Jack consults Stephan who disappears into his cabin to examine
his extensive medical library. Leafing through the pages he discovers that
the symptoms correspond with those described for scurvy. He then makes his
way back to the quarterdeck to inform Jack of the bad news. The learned Dr.
Maturin, the master of all things medical and scientific, did not even know
what the symptoms of scurvy were!
This third book of the series ends with our heroes
returning to England. Diana, who had declared her love to Stephan in India
has eloped to the United States with a rich American, but Jack awaits the
true, loving embraces of Sophia who has defied her mother and raced across
the sea to meet him.
Well, I suppose I have now given up on this whole Jack
Aubrey business. Judging from these first three books, things must lurch
onward from book to book to the 20th volume, in each of which Jack must
display breathtaking, extraordinary heroism to win one battle after another,
and Stephan to demonstrate his unbelievable erudition in one field after the
other. It is an overblown concoction drawn from the real lives of Thomas
Cochrane and Sir Joseph Banks. The story would have finished elegantly with
the first book, but then of course the author, Patrick O'Brian, would not
have been so successful, pandering to the people who like this kind of
Hollywood was more sensible, leaving things with just the
one movie, with Russel Crowe magnificently playing the role of Jack Aubery.
Although that movie was titled "Master and Commander", its story had no
connection with the book of that name. It must have been based on one of the
later books in the series. There, Jack Aubery is no longer in the fantasy
role of the real life Tomas Cochrane, rather he has become a version of
Robert FitzRoy, and Stephan Maturin plays the role of Charles Darwin. To
remove things somewhat from the peaceful, real life voyage of the Beagle,
the movie includes a short battle scene at the beginning with an impressive
While Patrick O'Brian's mastery of obscure, antiquated
nautical jargon can be applauded, his gifts as a teller of romantic love
stories leave much to be desired.
A week or two ago I listened to an interview with the author.
The idea of women's liberation has become so commonplace as to be completely
unquestioned. Who could possibly be against the idea of women being
liberated? Well, according to Rachel Wilson, many women are. And looking at
the reviews in amazon.com, most of which are written by women, this would
seem to be the case.
After all, while there certainly are some advantages for
women in being liberated from having a family into having a job, there are
also many disadvantages. Fifty or sixty years ago a single income was
adequate to support a family. No more. And with the "me-too" movement, men
become alienated, wary of women. It is no longer the norm for men to be in
the role of the protective, sheltering partner. The old-fashioned courtesies
are no more. And what are all of the jobs which people have these days? It
is said that in surveys of employees, a very great percentage, even a
majority, say that what they are doing is meaningless.
But the book was a disappointment. Lots of errors in the
text. A number of times we read, for example, that the famous feminist X was
born in the year 1945 and then was active in something or other in London in
1868. At the beginning the author thanks various people for their help with
the book, but sadly none of them seem to have taken the trouble to help with
Being an American, Rachel Wilson puts everything into the
American perspective. We are told about the protestant groups that settled
New England. They were the product of a religious separation from the
Catholic Church, which in turn was a product of a separation from the
Orthodox Church. Then in the future United States, these religions separated
into countless further religions and sects. In particular we have
spiritualism and theosophy. The book describes the fact that many of the
early feminists were involved in such religions, or sects, and also the
strange fact that witchcraft, for example the Wicca religion, whatever that is supposed to be, has
become popular with feminists.
But what has all this to do with the fact that in modern
China all women, as with men, are expected to have jobs? And also in Eastern
Europe which was also subjected to communism. I can hardly think that
anybody would describe communism as something to do with the occult. It was
simply a brutal upheaval of traditional society. In the end the author seems
to be telling us that she believes in (but given the present state of
hysteria in the United States is probably not a member of) the Eastern
Since I am not a woman this book was not really meant for
me. Certainly I am all for freedom, but we should remember that it must
exist in harmony with responsibility if we are to live a good life.
The title of the book comes from the expression for an infinite regression:
something which depends on something else, which depends on something else,
which depends... away to infinity, or just to nothingness. The subtitle of
the book is Vaccine Science and Myth. It was apparently written by
somebody, or some group in Israel, since it was written in the Hebrew
language and first published in 2019. The English version has recently
appeared, edited by Zoey O'Toole and Mary Holland. The reason for the
anonymity is that the facts presented in this book cannot be reasonably
questioned. They are established by an elaborate and painstaking list of
references, all of which are to traditional and established scientific
sources. The list is so long that the authors decided not to include it in
the book. Instead it can be examined online at https://tinyurl.com/TurtlesBookEngRef. Internet
"fact-checkers", when unable to find factual errors in a text, resort to
personal attacks on the authors. That is the reason the author, or authors
of this book choose to remain anonymous.
So what is the regression into nothingness which is dealt
with in the first part of the book? It all has to do with the assertion
which is repeated endlessly, over and over again, that vaccines are "safe
and effective". This mantra is repeated over and over in the "news", in
newspapers, by "experts", politicians, scientists, advertisements, and
everywhere else. So what is the basis of the "safe" part of the mantra?
We hear that all vaccines are exhaustively tested in
double-blind trials against a "placebo". What is a placebo? According to the
Merriam-Webster dictionary, a placebo is
are saline injections, or pills containing just sugar. As we learn in
this book, the vaccines which governments recommend - even mandate for
children - are never, never, never tested against a placebo!
For example if a new vaccine is being tested for measles, the
"placebo" against which it is being tested is not a saline solution.
Instead the "placebo" is the old measles vaccine which,
according to this logic, has already been found(?) to be "safe and
effective". And the old vaccine was tested against a still
older vaccine which has already been found(?) to be "safe and
- "an inert or
innocuous substance used especially in controlled experiments
testing the efficacy of another substance (such as a drug)".
But there is a problem with this method. What if
the experimental vaccine is the first vaccine to be used
against some disease X? Isn't that tested against a real placebo, as
defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? No, No, No!!! What
anathema! Of course not! The "placebo" is some other vaccine for some
totally other disease Y, which has no relationship with the disease X.
But, according to the pharmaceutical industries and the government
regulators, the vaccine for disease Y is a suitable "placebo" since it
is "safe and effective". Or, alternatively, the "placebo" is the
experimental vaccine with the active substance (the inactivated virus,
or whatever) removed. But the vaccine contains "adjuvants" - mercury,
aluminum salts, and whatever, together with preservatives such as
formaldehyde, and who knows what else.
As an example the book discusses the case of the
rotavirus vaccines given to small babies. The "placebo" in this case
was the whole doses of adjuvants, preservatives and everything, but
without the actual vaccine. In the trial with thousands of babies,
about 1 in 30 of the babies experienced a "severe" medical event,
especially those given the "placebo", and 43 died. The "placebo" had
no possible therapeutic effect, only possible harmful effects. Such
harms would logically never have occurred if a real placebo had been
used. Is it a criminal offense to injure innocent newborn babies like
this? Does it violate the Nuremberg Code, or the Hippocratic Oath?
Will the perpetrators of this crime be sent to jail? Hardly. They must
be enjoying life in their opulent houses, their summer compounds on
Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard, enjoying life sailing their magnificent
The book is organized as if it were a kind of
textbook. There is a table giving the exact sequence of "placebos" for
each of the childhood vaccines which are prescribed for children in
the United States, and presumably for most of the rest of the world.
The common diseases for which there are vaccines are described in
detail, their histories, properties. While these diseases were indeed
deadly in the 19th century, by the 1950s, before the widespread use of
vaccines, almost nobody died from them. Sanitation, modern sewage,
clean water, refrigeration, fresh foods, had done away with them. But
then, particularly in the past ten or twenty years, chronic diseases
have been increasing dramatically, with the incidence of death
overwhelming the few remaining cases for infectious disease. And that
is not to mention such things as autism or ADHD. Could this be
attributed to the flood of injections which babies and children are
subjected to? The arguments for and against are clearly described. In
particular those of the "fact-checkers" are listed and individually
discussed, not only with respect to this theme but also in each of the
chapters of the book.
Happily I was born in 1947, years before all of
these vaccines. I certainly did receive the Salk polio vaccine, and I
suppose I must have also had the DTP vaccine. But for all the other
things, as with everybody else in those days, I acquired natural
immunity, being sick for a day or two and staying home from school.
The book first came out in 2019, before the covid hysteria. Thus it
does not deal with the genetic therapy which the majority of people
have voluntarily, or through coercion, submitted themselves to. There
was no question of testing the safety of those injections during the
"Operation Warp-Speed" of that egomaniac Donald Trump and the
geriatric Joseph Biden. Of course I did not submit myself to this gene
therapy. Some months ago, as with the usual childhood encounters with
measles and whatever, I did spend a day in bed with a fever, but now
my immune system is attuned to all of the components of the corona
virus, not simply the spike protein.
The longest chapter of the book deals with polio.
What is polio? We can simply look things up in the Wikipedia here and find the answer. It is a long article
describing the cause, diagnosis, prognosis, history, epidemiology...
of polio. As we see, "Poliomyelitis is caused by
infection with a member of the genus Enterovirus known as poliovirus (PV)"... and so forth.
Some time ago I read an article in the internet
describing an outbreak of polio in New York back in the 1920s. It tried to
show that the children who became sick and lame had eaten portions of a
particular batch of ice cream whose sugar came from a particular farm in
Hawaii which had dosed the sugar cane with massive amounts of poison. Well,
Ok. Could it be that polio is really a matter of poisoning in the same way
that AIDS is? Unlike the Wikipedia, my mind is open to various hypothesis
and I enjoy contemplating the arguments for one thing and another.
The chapter on polio in the book goes far beyond that
internet article or the one in the Wikipedia. We learn of the seemingly
paradoxical properties of polio as they were discussed a hundred years ago.
The discovery of a virus which was named the poliovirus and the hypothesis
that it was the cause of the disease. Hundreds of thousands of monkeys were
subjected to absurd, bizarre, cruel experiments. Many of the known facts
simply didn't add up. Yet the virus hypothesis became embedded in medical
orthodoxy. Farmers associations defended their use of poisons; university
laboratories swam in the massive funding of polio research. The Salk vaccine
was introduced in 1955 and the incidence of polio declined dramatically.
This was the proof of the poliovirus hypothesis!
But wait. Correlation is not necessarily causation!
The alternative hypothesis is that polio is due to
agricultural chemicals which cause poisoning leading to lameness. In the
late 19th century, some farmers began spraying their apples and other fruits
with an uncontrolled mixture of lead and arsenic. And isolated cases of
polio appeared, particularly in rural areas in late summer, just after the
harvesting season. Then DDT was developed. Everything was sprayed, even
soaked in DDT. Cases of polio skyrocketed in "western" society, but it was
relatively unknown in the "third world" where these agrichemicals were too
expensive to use. It was thought that, for some reason or another, polio was
only a disease of wealthy societies. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt,
the President of the United States, caught it. Nobody had an explanation for
this. Gradually, from the middle of the 1950s, DDT was recognized to be
dangerous and it was used less and less, being outlawed after Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring. But DDT is now being used in the "third
world". Mosquito nets are soaked in DDT. It is sprayed on fields. Suddenly
it is now said that polio is a disease of poor societies. For some
reason, in the last 50 or 60 years it has changed from being a disease of wealthy
societies to one of poor societies.
Yet, for example in India we are gradually conquering
polio! William Henry ("Bill") Gates III, the hero of medicine, has declared
that billions of dollars must be spent on genetic therapy injections to
finally eliminate polio totally from the earth. He is investing part of his
untold rches into this and into the advertising his billions have bought in
his control of legacy media.
Indeed it might be possible to eliminate "polio", given
the modern definition of polio. It is namely the case that if a
child gets sick and becomes lame then that is declared to be a case of polio
only if antigens to the poliovirus are found in its blood. Otherwise,
it is not polio. Instead it is called accute flaccid paralysis, or
AFP. A new, unexplained disease whose causes are unknown. Through heavy and
repeated vaccination campaigns the poliovirus is being eliminated from
humanity, but the incidence of AFP in India is growing rapidly. The numbers
of lamed children with AFP and the suffering it is causing is greater than
that which was experienced with "polio".
Something simple, lighthearted, for a change. These are two
very forgettable books which can be read quickly. In fact having read them a
couple of weeks ago I couldn't remember what they were about. A look at the
blurb in amazon.com has brought them back into memory. The stories are
filled with sentimental English thoughts. Family, guilt, embarrassments,
bodily secretions and unpleasant consequences. Some things are best left
unsaid. These books are meant for those who prefer to dwell in them.
The author has studied ancient English history and so she
would like to tell us something about it, particularly from the perspective
of women. This is an historical novel concerning Eleanor of Provence who was the the wife of Henry III
and thus Queen of England from 1236 until 1272. For some reason or another,
her name is spelled "Ailenor" in the book, rather than Eleanor. Maybe this
was in order to make it easy for the reader to distinguish the heroine from
her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile, the wife of her first son, Edward
I, who became Queen in 1272 when "Ailenor's" husband died. There are also
two further "Rose" historical novels by Carol McGrath, dealing with
subsequent women in the royal lineage.
The story begins with the 13 year old Ailenor arriving in
the cold, grey, wet winter of England to be married to the 29 year old Henry
III. We imagine all of her emotions, her homesickness for the warmth of the
south of France. The marriage is first consummated some years later when she
has grown up. It is said that the marriage was a happy one despite the fact
that Henry III was fanatically devoted to religion. Of course religion was
everywhere in the 13th century, but the example of Geoffrey Chaucer shows
that the middle ages could also be a lighthearted time.
Ailenor, together with her ladies in waiting, occupies
herself with embroidery, sewing elaborate figures into all the various
cloths in her chambers; the wall hangings, bed clothes, robes and whatnot.
These days such things are done with special sewing machines which after a
short buzz produce the desired figure. But in the 13th century the fine
ladies spent months and years on their embroidery. There was probably a much
more pleasant, relaxed feeling to it than in the modern version. In order to
liven up the narrative, we have Ailenor learning from and elevating a young
professional embroiderer to be also her intimate companion. And she is
constantly arranging marriages between the ladies in her circle and other
gentlemen (or rather knights and warlords) of her acquaintance. We
sympathize with those poor teenage girls of only 13, 14,.. years who are
sent off to somewhere or other, France or Spain, to marry some prince or
king in order to establish an alliance. They had no choice in the matter. At
least Ailenor brought with her a large retinue of servants, officials, and
friends from Provence to keep her company in the strange land of England.
Gradually the book became a bit boring, relating the
various points of history which were gone through during the reign of Henry
III; his campaigns in the south of France, his conflicts with the Barons of
England, the marriages between the various royal families. The actors in the
drama at the beginning become lifeless figures in all this flow of
In the middle of reading the book we traveled for a week
to an ancient monastery near a lake in the north of Italy to attend a course
of renaissance music. There were not only viols, flutes, lutes, violins,
serpents, and song. In addition there was a course of renaissance dance for
more advanced participants. Then in the evening of the last day each of the
various groups performed for the others a few of the pieces we had been
playing. The first event was the dance in a large hall of the monastery. How
wonderful it was to see the people we had gotten to know in all the
conversations we had had at breakfasts, lunches and dinners during the week
moving so elegantly in beautiful sweeping movements through the hall; a long
and complicated repertoire. We were all overwhelmed. The monastery was built
in the 15th century, two hundred years after the time of Ailenor, but I can
imagine she, and the rest of the court, dancing with a similar elegance.
The author tells us about the renaissance composer Antonio Vivaldi, imagining what it may have been like
in the Venice of 300 years ago and telling us of his plans to make a film of
the life of Vivaldi. In a short chapter entitled Nachspiel
(Afterword) the author describes his friendship with the cameraman Michael Ballhaus who had become nearly blind at the
end of his life, and the abandonment of the movie. And so the book is
somewhere between a biography, an historical novel, and the personal
thoughts and dreams of the author.
Vivaldi was famous in his lifetime but he was soon
forgotten. Only a sketched caricature, a line drawing, and a questionable
portrait of someone who might be Vivaldi remain. There are some letters,
nothing personal, his formal correspondence with bureaucrats, lawyers. And
of course there are the manuscripts of his music which were discovered in
the 1920s by chance in an old mildewed monastery. It is only a fraction of
his work. He wrote and produced over 90 operas, as well as the vast amount
of music he wrote for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. The memory of Vivaldi
was awakened when German musicologists in the 19th century, going through
the manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach, noticed that Bach had sometimes
written that one piece or another was attributable to Vivaldi, a name which
was unknown. And so Vivaldi was rediscovered to such an extent that his Four
Seasons has become the most played piece of music in the world.
Countless violinists have recorded it. It is a favorite in concerts. It is
played in supermarkets, as ringtones for telephones.
Little is known of his personal life. He was a virtuoso
violinist, as was his father. The family had him study to become a Catholic
priest, perhaps to ensure that he would not fall into the poverty common to
musicians. He caused various of the high priests of Italy to become angry
with his success as a composer and producer of operas, he being himself a
priest. This led him to travel, finding positions in other cities and
countries. His most famous pupil was Anna Tessiere Girò. She and her sister accompanied
Vivaldi on many of these travels. And thus the book imagines possible
romantic entanglements. Yet we learn of the punishments which priests faced
if they were to break their bonds of chastity. Such punishments did not
apply to the high priests and popes of Italy. Even now, 500 years after the
Reformation of Martin Luther, there are people within the Catholic Church
who would like to reform it in the sense of allowing priests to marry and
live normal, healthy lives like everybody else, and also allowing women to
be priests. This seems to me to be a very strange idea. Why don't they
realize that such reformed churches have existed for over 500 years? If they
object to these Protestant churches as being mere upstarts, then why not
look to the true, ancient, Eastern Orthodox Church, which allows married men
to become priests?
For at least the last 12, if not 15 years, we have been going
regularly each month to Burg Sternberg where Walter Waidosch organizes a day of music. At first I
played my baroque and renaissance flutes in his Renaissance Group which
usually meets on Sundays. But since retirement I have been learning to play
the viol, and we go instead on Saturdays to his Viol Consort Group. Walter
finds ever new things for us to play. False starts and confusion usually
lead to a pleasant music. This is punctuated by stories of the renaissance
related in his hearty Bavarian accent. In all the years we have been with
him I have not noticed him repeating any of these stories. His knowledge of
renaissance music, particularly that of Italy, is encyclopedic.
In addition to Burg Sternberg where Walter has a workshop
in which he makes and repairs stringed instruments, he also organizes
courses for a weekend or a week at other places: a winter weekend on the
Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog; a week in late autumn at the convent of
Maguzzano near Lake Garde in northern Italy; a week at Easter in the convent
at Badia a Ruoti in Tuscany. Unfortunately the Easter
course at Badia has been sacrificed to the god of Corona for the last couple
of years. But it was a wonderful experience to play the music of the Tuscan
renaissance in such a place, to walk about in the Tuscan countryside, to
visit towns such as Siena and Cortona.
I was surprised when Walter told me that he had written a
novel. We had long ago gotten his CD with the same title as this book, but I
had not realized that he had written a book to accompany the music. Of
course it is written in the German language and certainly it will not be
translated into English. It has many Italian words in it as well, along with
15 or 20 Italian poems, together with translations into German. These poems
are the words to songs which the characters in the story sing.
There are two parallel stories. In the present day, a
German lute virtuoso who is also a musicologist arrives in Venice to give a
concert. He meets a beautiful Italian woman of an ancient family, and they
fall in love. He appears to be a bachelor. They both seem to be in their
40s. She has a grown son. Her husband is a dignified, wealthy man, of an
established Venetian family with an opulent mansion on the Grand Canal. They
set off on a road trip into Tuscany and Badia a Ruoti, becoming intimate.
In the seven nights of the book, the woman, Laura, tells
her lover, Emanuel, a story of her ancestor, Caterina Stendardi, a noble
woman who lived in a castle near Badia four centuries ago. She hears
beautiful singing. It is Gian Andrea Giustiniani, a young man who, while not
being a monk, is living in the monastery at Badia. They are younger than
Laura and Emanuel - things developed more quickly in those violent
renaissance days. Perhaps they are in their mid 20s, with Caterina having a
teenage son. Gian is invited to become the music teacher to the household.
Passionate love develops; music; tragedy.
The book begins in Mandalay in 1885 with the British Army
(consisting mainly of Indian sepoys) progressing up the Irrawaddy River with
paddle wheel steamers and heavy artillery, capturing King Thibaw Min of Burma and transporting him to an
obscure town on the west coast of India where he spent the rest of his life
under house arrest. The story mixes historical facts and personalities with
imagined characters. And so we imagine that the King and Queen are
accompanied by a few young girls, including the small, but larger than life
Dolly. Then we have Rajkumar, a penniless youth who sees Dolly being
escorted away from Mandalay together with the King, and he falls secretly in
love with her.
The story jumps forward 15 or 20 years. Rajkumar has
become a wealthy dealer in teak, and he is given an audience with the Queen
in exile, asking for the hand of Dolly. They marry, live in Rangoon, have
children, have a huge rubber plantation. The Second World War comes. The
Japanese overrun everything. Another jump through time. The British Empire
is no more. Burma is no longer Burma, rather it is Myanmar. A military
dictatorship. The main branches of the family are in India or the United
States. One lost relative exists in Rangoon in a state of enlightened
revelation above his photo shop which is named The Glass Palace. We
also encounter the real life Aung San Suu Kyi.
But all of this detail just seems to be there in order
for the author to tell us what he really wants to say: The British Empire.
Generations of Indians belonged to an army whose officers were English. And
yet the common Indian soldiers remained loyal, proud of their service, ready
to die for the values of a foreign country. Was British rule so wonderful -
as all the thousands, even millions of Indians and so many other
nationalities of the Commonwealth seem to believe? Those who even now clamor
to live in England.
My experience has been that the English are a pleasant,
friendly people. This may be due to the fact that my ancestry is mostly
Anglo-Saxon, and thus, racially, I look like an English person. But the
British government, even today, seems to treat its foreign affairs in a
cruel, cynical, self-serving way.
In one of the episodes of the book, a young member of the
family joins the Indian Army in the 1930s and is made an officer - a
lieutenant. This is represented as an unprecedented step. Would the common
Indian soldiers respect him? A mere Indian, Not an Englishman. In Burma his
unit is overrun by the Japanese, and he joins a group of "traitors": Indian
soldiers who have gone over to the Japanese and are fighting in the "Indian National Army". His commanding officer tells
him that after the war is finished he will be court-martialed and hung. But
he wasn't. In the real world, not just in this story, India welcomed these
"traitors" as heroes, and those who remained loyal were considered cowards,
if not traitors. What a contrast with the treatment of the disloyal troops
in the 1857 uprising. The book describes a scene after that "mutiny" of 1857
where the roads are lined with the corpses of soldiers impaled on stakes. A
scene as horrible as that of the Romans after the Spartacus uprising where
the roads were lined with crucified corpses. The British in the late 1940s
had become soft. No stomach left for such savage deeds.
We think about different forms of government. As seen
everywhere today, and as Plato recognized it back in ancient Greece,
democracy is one of the worst forms of government. It becomes increasingly
corrupted, serving the interests of the oligarchs. Perhaps a monarchy is
better. But even then a class of rapacious oligarchs might emerge if the
monarch is too weak. Is then a colonial government a better idea? Strictly
administered by a distant "mother country" which looks down upon its empire
with even-handed contempt? An arbitrary but impartial force of stability.
Such an idea of colonialism was the norm a century or more ago, but it is an
unspeakable taboo today. Rightly so. Despite this the author seems to be
expressing a nostalgia for those days of empire before the Second World War.
He may not be among the masses of people of the Commonwealth clamoring to
enter Britain, but they are there. What are they looking for?
Amitav Ghosh has written a whole collection of further
books. This one is filled with characters which are larger than life: the
exiled King; the flawless Dolly; the simple laborer, Rajkumar who becomes
endlessly wealthy, only to lose everything as in a Greek tragedy; and then
the son who, even in the midst of oppression becomes a perfect, angelic
figure, with pilgrims flocking to see and hear him in his Glass Palace.
I prefer stories of simple, imperfect, normally flawed
The protagonist is named Daud. With the help of his family he
has escaped from the violence of Zanzibar in the 1960s, perhaps in his late
teens, to study in England. But he has failed; the strains, upheavals were
too much. Now he is working in a hospital, mopping the floors, cleaning the
mess in the operating theaters at the end of the day. He is afraid of
telling his family, his father, of his fate. They have sacrificed everything
to enable him to escape the country.
The plot is similar to that in some of the other novels
and we imagine the author is telling us of his own experiences. But Gurnah
was not a failure. He had a distinguished academic career. So perhaps he is
imagining what it would have been like if he had not succeeded.
Daud has a couple of friends, one is a "white" Englishman
who is helpless, confused, seeking contact with Daud but ultimately spewing
racist words. Another is a "black" African who is successfully studying in
England with the intention of returning to his country to become a rich,
corrupt politician. He is full of racist hatred for the English. Daud is
afraid of the English skinheads out on the streets. He is often threatened,
but he doesn't seem to have been actually attacked. He follows the cricket
on the radio. The West Indies are playing a test series against England, and
he exults in the English defeat and thinks about the wonderful West Indians.
How beautifully they play. How they grind England into the ground with their
superiority. But at one stage he grudgingly admits that Tony Greig - who he calls "The Boer" - was not so bad.
But how can it be that Daud is identifying himself with
black Africans, or at least people of black African descent? He himself is
not "black". Instead he tells us that he is of Indian and Arab ancestry. So
what were the Indians and Arabs doing in Zanzibar before the English
arrived? Why was it necessary for him to escape? We need to have a look at
the history of Zanzibar. From 1504 to 1698 it was part of the
Portuguese Empire. Then it was taken over by the Sultan of Oman. We read
that each year about 50,000 black African slaves were sold by Arab slave
traders. This was not the slave trade to the Americas. The conditions on the
plantations of the East were so horrendous that about a third of the male
slaves died each year, resulting in a continuous supply of new slaves. The
British signed treaties with the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1822 to eliminate
this slave trade, but only in 1876 was it officially abolished by the
Sultan. This must have been a great disappointment for the Arab slave
dealers. In 1890 Zanzibar became part of the British Empire, being then a
constitutional monarchy under the Sultan, remaining so until independence in
1963. While the Arabs were the slave traders, the Indians were the
shopkeepers, living on the wealth generated by this abominable trade. And so
we can understand the violence and horror of the Zanzibar Revolution of
1964, when the black African population took their revenge on the Arab and
In the novel Daud escaped this, leaving the country with
forged documents, and leaving his family to continue to endure the
situation. He was left with a feeling of guilt, loneliness in the England of
the swinging 1960s. Perhaps the author had a similar experience. But it is
difficult for the reader to understand how Daud considers himself to be a
"black" African. Is this a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"?
Such historical confusion reflects the historical ignorance which is the
basis of everything that is repulsive in the world today.