Sunday, December 16, 2007

A social climber, our Joe - A review of A Room At The Top by John Braine

It’s fifty years since A Room At The Top first appeared. Against a backdrop of post-war Britain, a period when people really did believe that a new future, a different kind of society was just around the corner, Joe Lampton, born January 1921, aspired to social and economic elevation. Though competent and already promoted as a local government officer in a grubby northern English town, with spare time interests in amateur dramatics, cigarettes and beer, even he himself rated his prospects of success as very poor. But Joe’s other passion was the ladies.

Two in particular caught his eye. Alice Aisgarth was married, older than him, and had a local reputation for being a bit “forward”. Basically she wanted love and passion to light up her dull, unhappy life with excitement. Susan Brown was a different prospect entirely, being nineteen, virginal and daughter of a rich businessman. If Joe Lampton could never work his way to wealth, he might just be able to marry it. His problems arose out of Susan’s desire to remain pure during their courtship, a position that meant Joe had to continue seeing Alice to satisfy his needs. Further complications arose when Susan relented and fell immediately pregnant. Well Joe achieved his goal. He and Susan married and he attained what he had sought all along, a meal ticket for life. He was not entirely without conscience, however. So when the rejected Alice, who deeply loved him, is killed in a car crash after a drunken night trying to drown her sorrows, Joe Lampton does suffer some remorse. But eventually, like many social climbers, he achieves his heights by trampling on others.

What remains enduringly intriguing about Room At The Top is its portrayal of British society’s obsession with social class. Joe perceives his best chance of social elevation is to marry money. And, in 2007, I re-read this novel in a week when a United Kingdom report declared that current day social class differences were widening, whilst opportunities for social mobility are actually decreasing. So John Braine’s novel is also a social document. The book is very much of its own time. It reminds us, for instance, that in the 1950s everyone smoked – and smoked a lot. Men drank pints in the pub – some of which did not even admit women. Homosexuality was not only not tolerated, it was illegal, though remained visible.

Some of the recorded individual aspiration now seems nothing less than quaint. Alice Aisgarth, for instance, declares that she would like to sleep with Joe. “Truly sleep,” she qualifies, “in a big bed with a feather mattress and brass rails and a porcelain chamber pot underneath it.” In the 1950s, most north of England houses did not have bathrooms and the potties were usually enamel.

But it is in the area of social class that A Room At The Top is bitingly and enduringly apt. Joe Lampton believes he lacks the capacity to succeed, lacks the necessary background, the poise, the breeding. He sees himself as essentially vulgar and possesses no talents which might compensate for this drawback. His rival for Susan Brown’s affections, however, is one John Wales. He is studying for a science degree at Cambridge, and thus acquiring not only the knowledge which will ensure that he will become the managing director of the family firm, but will also endow the polish of manner, the habit of command, the calm superiority of bearing, the attributes of a gentleman. 

Fifty years on, we might change an odd word, and the family firm might now be multi-national, but the spirit of contemporary Britain’s class system is arguably the same. And so despite the aspiration for and perceived attainment of social change in post-war Britain, Room At The Top, juxtaposed with recent evidence, reminds us that very little, if anything, has changed – except for the cigarettes and the chamber pots, of course. Oh, and we might now also prefer lager.

View this book on amazon ROOM AT THE TOP

Monday, December 10, 2007

A review of Unless by Carol Shields

Unless by Carol Shields has been my third novel in a row written from the perspective of a self-analytical, self-critical and perhaps self-obsessed female narrator, the other being by Margaret Drabble and Anne Enright. Maybe Carol Shields drew the short straw, because I felt that Reta, the writer-narrator of Unless, internalised everything, so much so, in fact, that the other characters in the book became no more than projections of themselves within her. Maybe that was part of the point. 

Ostensibly about a family of ordinary people, Unless portrays Reta Winters, her partner Tom and their three daughters. They live an hour from Toronto in a home that sounds as big as a village. Reta can’t decide how many rooms there are, or even what might constitute a room. Tom’s a medic and Reta is a published author of moderate success. Not, at least for me, run-of-the-mill ordinary folk. 

The eldest daughter, Norah, a nineteen year old determined to make her own marks, has recently left home to live with a boyfriend. She has dropped out of college and then she suddenly took to sleeping rough, occasionally in a hostel for the homeless, whilst, during the day sitting on a street corner behind a sign saying, “Goodness”. Reta can’t rationalise her daughter’s apparent rejection of everything she was supposed to be and begins to delve into her own psyche for clues. It affects her work, her family life and her relationships, all of which must, of course, go on. 

Throughout, the narrative is both clear and crisp. Reta’s character is credible, if a little prone to a lack of self-awareness, despite the fact that she seems to have majored in the topic to the extent that her self-preoccupation verges on the obsessive. Her writing progresses, but for me unconvincingly. A light read, something twixt romance and general fiction, is what she is looking for. Quite why the main character needs to be an Albanian trombonist (good at sex, apparently, because of the regular arm-pumping) only Carol Shields knows. There were comic opportunities that were never taken and, equally, possibilities for parallel lives that were never exploited. 

Personally, I found the scenario of the novel within the novel, as explained by Reta, herself, the writer, offered neither comic relief nor insight. When Reta’s new editor demands that the light fiction be transformed into the literary by means of, amongst other things, redrawing the last chapter to introduce surprise and enigma, undertones, unexpected depth, we are led directly into the unexpected discovery of the reason behind the unexplained behaviour of Reta’s daughter, the events that prompted her drop-out into apparent depression. It ought to have been a poignant moment, but for me it all became a bit pedestrian. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, by the way. 

My criticisms are technical at best and petty at worst, but I fell I have to record them. Perhaps it was attempting three psyche-analysing, internally-bound first persons on the trot that got to me. Perhaps I too got lost inside myself as I read. Carol Shields’s “I” was a darned sight more balanced and self-sufficient than either Drabble’s or Enright’s. Perhaps if Reta had made a bit more fuss I would have found her more credible. But that, undoubtedly, was her strength. 

View the book on amazon Unless

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Interpretation perfected by presentation – the Berlin Mendelssohn Trio in Palau Altea, Altea, Spain

One of the great, even reassuring, things about what the CD shops ignorantly label “Classical Music” is its freedom, its liberality, its democratic principles. Yes, it has its stars. Yes, it has its forms and conventions. But in “Classical Music” these aspects never dominate. The music is always the prime focus. Anyone can learn any piece, anyone can play it, and anyone is free to interpret the composer’s intentions – as long as those intentions are respected, of course. And all of this is done unencumbered by wires, microphones or amplification, since real sound and real experience are always the goal. 

Performance, therefore, becomes a form of communication, a presentation of the music, itself, plus often much more. Contrast that with some other genres where commerce and celebrity are the raisons d’être, where the music is merely a secondary, often irrelevant accompaniment. Never mind the quality of the lip-sync, feel the width of the show. Critics of “Classical Music” often cite a lack of bravura on behalf of the performers. This, of course, is to misunderstand both the medium and the content, since the passion is always in the music and good performances should always highlight the music, not themselves. 

Not all performers perform well, of course, but then that is true of every staged activity, not least of other genres of music than “Classical”. So when a performer is exceptional both in terms of interpretation and delivery, an occasional flaw or inaccuracy passes by unnoticed. So it was with the Berlin Mendelssohn Trio in Palau Altea, not that there were many flaws to pass by. They offered their audience seven pieces, including an encore, one of which did indeed happen to be “classical” and four of which were presented as a single item, not really because the composer necessarily intended it, but because it made musical sense. The commitment and energy that the group displayed was quite remarkable. 

They opened with Beethoven’s Opus 11 trio. If Schubert always sings, then Beethoven usually dances, and this trio hopped and pranced with energy, always, of course, with Beethoven’s musical tension showing through. The trio became a duo for Grieg’s Op36 Cello Sonata, with cellist Ramon Jaffė playing a work to which he is clearly and utterly committed. It’s a well-known sonata but, perhaps, not as well-known as it ought to be, since it is nothing less than a masterpiece. It’s a big, hefty work, which moves from tender to tough, pulsating to pensive, sardonic to sombre and back again throughout its full thirty minutes. To describe Ramon Jaffė’s playing of this hugely demanding piece as both exciting and committed would be stretching under-statement to its limits. But at the end, it seemed that the audience, not the performer, bore the exhaustion, since the cellist’s complete mastery of the piece and his instrument had led everyone up and down every path through the music. Absolute and undiluted magic. 

 And then the Berlin Mendelssohn Trio actually played a piece of classical music, Haydn’s trio number 45. See Haydn on a concert programme and the mind automatically thinks elegance, wit, proportion – at least when the performers are sufficiently aware of these things, themselves. Too often, I have to admit, one sees Haydn on a programme and thinks “a loosener”. Not so if it’s played third and not so if it’s offered by the Berlin Mendelssohn Trio. Indeed these performers found an edge or two on which to balance, harmonies to stress for surprise and occasional idiosyncratic rhythms to highlight. Quite revelatory. 

Their final work was the four seasons, not of Vivaldi, but of Piazzolla. Now I have never before heard these offered as a group in performance and wondered whether their stylistic and melodic similarities might prove repetitive. Not so. The faster tempo parts of these tangos were performed as true allegros, the slower sections as adagios, and so the pieces became, in effect, four twentieth century concerti grossi to emulate their more famous late baroque cousins, though via a tougher, grittier musical language. 

And they brought the house down. To say that these three guys were exhausted by this time is no under-statement. Their audience offered an immediate and prolonged standing ovation and the Berlin Mendelssohn Trio responded with a single, sad, gentle encore in the form of Piazzolla’s Oblivion. Prior to this, the pianist actually apologised, saying that that piano provided had really been too small for such a large auditorium. No-one, of course, had noticed, since the group’s music had more than filled the place.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A review of The Gathering by Anne Enright

Anne Enright’s The Gathering deserves every ounce of praise it has received, and perhaps a bit more. It’s a family history of the Hegartys, told by Veronica after the death of her brother, Liam. So, and therefore, it is a wake, a stream of consciousness response to bereavement. There are more than shades of Molly Bloom here, as Veronica recounts intimate details of her own and her relatives’ ultimately inconsequential lives. And despite its obvious – and necessary – preoccupation with death and mourning, it is eventually an optimistic work, as optimistic as it can be when we are all revealed as rather inconsequential, temporal additions to the grand scheme of things, a grand scheme which, itself, is neither grand nor, indeed, a scheme. In such a void, we need blame to compensate grief. And after that is duly apportioned, at least we can just get on with it. 

What The gathering is not, by the way, is the kind of book that would appeal to anyone wanting instant gratification, a murder on every page, celebrity, wealth, empty melodrama, character that can be worn, or even axe-grinding. It is not snobbish to say that The Gathering runs kilometres above such pulp. That it deals with the lives of ordinary people in a less than successful family is stated at the outset by the author. 

Of the Hegarty family experience, Veronica writes, “the great thing about being dragged up is that there is no-one to blame. We are entirely free range. We are human beings in the raw. Some survive it better than others, that’s all.” Now this is fascinating, because a little later she asserts that when individual Hegartys feel aggrieved with their lot, there is always someone to blame, “because with the Hegartys a declaration of unhappiness is always a declaration of blame.” So within the family, blame is impossible to apportion, but always applied. Given my own assertion that we often need blame to compensate grief, this leads us to an understanding of Veronica’s diatribe, her frustration at being unable to find someone to blame, but needing to do so in order to cope with the loss. The book, then, is her personal catharsis. 

The beauty of The Gathering is its ability to remind us, fairly constantly, of the dysfunctional nature of the Hegarty family, whilst at the same time recording that most of those involved, in one way or other, find some kind of fulfilment in their lives. Liam, the brother who committed suicide by jumping off Brighton pier, was undoubtedly one of the casualties. And eventually the whole family shares his tragedy and, at the very end, ride through and past it. One aspect of the Hegartys is particularly enigmatic, however, and that is their relation to religion. There’s a priest, now an ex-priest, if that is possible, in the family and, at least nominally, they are Catholics. But the religiosity in Veronica’s narrative is less than convincing and hints at the grudging, though perhaps she cannot admit this, even to herself. If she were still practising, she would be more deferential. If she had rejected her faith, she would be more cynical. And if she were a sceptic, her attacks would be more vehement. 

The next time I read The Gathering, I will be careful to note references to religion, since it remains an enigmatic aspect of Veronica’s character. As Veronica’s narration progresses, it feels like she is getting things off her chest, a prosaic enough reaction to bereavement. By the end, we are confident that she has achieved her goal and that she will approach at least the next few days of her life with renewed vigour. Until, perhaps, she is plunged again into the miry uniqueness of who she is, its unacceptability, and its inevitability. For that is who we are. Choice is not ours. 

View this book on amazon The Gathering

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A review of A S Byatt’s A Whistling Woman

A S Byatt’s A Whistling Woman is a strange book. At one level it’s a straightforward account of university life, with its politics, affairs and academic pursuit. But then there’s the suspicion that none of this is ever satisfying for those involved. They yearn for something bigger, whilst at the same time trying to deny its significance in their lives. Another strand is the career of Federica, one of the book’s principal characters. Almost by default, she finds herself host of a BBC2-style arts review or in-depth discussion. She is forced via the subject matter of her programmes to re-examine a whole host of assumptions. So while the scientists try to identify a mechanism by which memory is both stimulated and fixed by means of electrical stimulation, Federica, via her television shows, offers apparently ever more arcane subject matter, leaving us confused as to what we think we might believe – or even remember.

And these are just some of the strands of plot and characterisation in A Whistling Woman, certainly one of the more complex novels I have read in many years. I have not read the previous three works in the series. This may have been why I found a number of loose ends that seemed to have strayed and frayed from elsewhere.

And then there’s the alternative university that establishes itself near to the conventional campus of the University of North Yorkshire, whose acronym, obviously, is UNY, implying generality. The alternative people adopt true nineteen sixties postures, preferring question to answer, experience to knowledge, heuristics to instruction. When we recall this hippy, flower power, professedly liberated, free thinking era, it is wise to bear in mind that this is also the generation that elected Ronald Reagan, tolerated support for death squads in central America and fuelled the consumer boom of the later eighties. But at the time, these revolutionaries sought something transcendent in their anti-university and found it in a self-destructing religious sect.

But no matter what people profess, no matter what they research, they still sleep with one another, still get pregnant, still need mutual support. The 1960s complicated all of these things with a superimposed need for personal, transcendental fulfilment and expression, whilst, at the same time, destroying perhaps permanently any possible recourse to established religion. In A Whistling Woman, A S Byatt captures this confusion and dissects it, but she offers us no neat packages of analysis, no simple results by which we might identify its elements.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A note on A Bucket of Ashes, a romantic novel by Jill Lanchbery

A Bucket of Ashes, a romantic novel set in Britain and Nigeria, by Jill Lanchbery is publised by Libros International. At the heart of A Bucket of Ashes by Jill Lanchbery is an old fashioned love story. Joanna Townsend has it all. She has her own home in a beautiful Sussex village, a successful career as a freelance fashion illustrator, a fourteen year old son who she adores and a gorgeous boyfriend, Tom who wants to marry her.

Sally Akinola, mother of four teenage daughters, thinks she has it all too until she learns that her handsome Nigerian husband Isaac has a second wife who has produced the sons that his family and culture value so highly.
It is when Joanna is offered a prestigious assignment in Lagos that the two women, once friends but now separated by time distance and culture, rekindle their friendship. As their two lives - past and present - parallel and intertwine, ducking and diving between modern day and fifteen years earlier, they are forced to confront their own personal problems compelling them to make choices they had never wanted or expected to make.

Joanna, once again under the spell of her son's father, Marcus, the man who had abandoned her, must decide whether or not she can trust him a second time; both for herself and for her son, Harry's sake. For Sally it is a tragic event that irrevocably changes her life finally giving her the strength to do what she knows in her heart she must do.

Set against the colourful tropical backdrop of Nigeria, it is a novel of passion, intrigue and tragedy, of teenage angst and cultural identity, but above all it is a story of human frailty. Of what happens when people live in such close proximity that adultery becomes almost obligatory and of the goldfish environment in which it flourishes. Of what happens when emotions are allowed to overrule common sense.

Jill Lanchbery was born in Essex but brought up in South Africa and Zambia and has lived in Nigeria, Northern Ireland and England. She now lives on the Costa Blanca in Spain where she teaches English in between writing her novels. She has had stories and articles published in periodicals and anthologies.Although born in Nazeing, Essex, Jill considers herself to be a citizen of the world. As a small child, shortly after the end of the Second World War, she emigrated to South Africa along with her parents and brother and sister.

Jill was the stereotypical scribbling child. Fascinated from a young age by 'words on paper', she excelled at reading and writing.

An early marriage, four children and a husband whose job took the family all over the world meant that her formal education was curtailed. However she considers that what she may have missed out on in terms of 'pieces of paper' was compensated for by the abundance of experience she gained along the way.

She was a grandmother - and what she describes as a 'late developer' - when she attended the University of Sussex, where she studied creative writing and English literature.

Jill later went on to qualify as an EFL teacher specialising in Business English and she has taught both in the United Kingdom and in Spain.

It was a family trauma - the death of her second daughter Alison in 1988 in tragic circumstances - that made her re-evaluate her life and was the catalyst for her writing.

Since then she has had articles and short stories published in periodicals and anthologies and been placed in several international short story competitions. She was for many years an active member of Hastings Writers Group and is featured in their new anthology Diamonds.

Reviews of A Bucket of Ashes on amazon include:
Jill's story follows a fashion designer, Joanna, on an assignment back to Nigeria, where she lived years before with her husband. Her return visit re-discovers some skeletons from a cupboard she thought had been closed as she renews a relationship with Marcus, whom she promised not to meet. Throughout the book, Joanna has choices to make in her life and, perhaps, the return to Nigeria brings the options into sharper focus. A gentle story well told. The characters really do come to life.

Jill has conjured up the imagery of Africa with finesse, you can smell Africa, see her colours, hear her sounds. And against this backdrop, we are confronted with tough human emotions and difficult choices. It is the type of book that leaves you thinking about it long after you have finished the last page and put the book back onto the bookshelf. I really enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who enjoys thoughtful, well-written narrative.

A Bucket of Ashes will appeal to anyone who reads romantic fiction, but it also has the depth and content to captivate the general reader.

A note on God Works For Me Now by Jacqueline Blakeway

God Works For Me Now by Jacqueline Blakeway is published by Libros International. It’s a book that describes a marriage breakdown and the spiritual responses of the partners involved. God Works For Me Now is Jackie Blakeway’s account of the rapid rise and then slow demise of a relationship. Jackie describes how she fell in love with Jai, the name she attaches to her former husband for the purposes of her personal account. The way I read things, he was somewhat forceful, a bit too self-assured and confident for someone whose main claim to fame was running a Birmingham newsagent. But when we fall for another person, as Jackie Blakeway points out, rationality, analysis or logic rarely play a role. Our rose-tinted vision is rarely twenty-twenty. The book describes the development and nature of the subsequent problems. They are presented as a sequential story and, at every stage, Jackie describes her responses, her attempts to reconcile the eventually overwhelming evidence of her partner’s instability with her desire to keep their relationship alive. Jai sinks into a kind of mental illness. He suffer delusions of grandeur on the grandest scale. He follows those who claim to open the secrets of eternity. And he is rejected. Eventually, he feels himself so close to the centre of the universe that he insists that God works for him now, hence the book’s title. No-one else, however, seems to share his delusion. As a means of coping with the deteriorating relationship, Jackie Blakeway consults medics, both para and normal. She examines her own psyche, seeks solace in different forms of meditation and approaches to self-realisation. Jackie Blakeway’s description of her marital dissolution, the deterioration of the relationship between herself and her husband is nothing less than forensic. Her account, her side of the story, is God Works For Me Now. It’s a harrowing tale. The book’s synopsis tells the story. In the year 2000, Jacky watched Jaya, the man she loved, hover on the brink of insanity. It was the most traumatic and terrifying experience of her life. When his anguished search for enlightenment caused him to access dramatic spiritual insights and visions from other cultures and centuries, Jacky's life took on a turbulence she could barely manage. In Jaya's 'blinding vision' on his journey into the mind, he believed that God had bestowed on him a dark and perilous mission to perform here on earth. It was a mission that was accompanied by unlimited power. Soon his daily life began to run parallel with a story that was written five thousand years ago, bringing devastation and destruction to every area of his life. The incredible twists and turns that Jaya's 'spiritual crisis' took from this point on led Jacky to the brink of hell and back. Imagine an ego so wildly out of control that he claimed even God worked for him! This is an amazing true story. It is a story about love, heroism and survival. A review on amazon states: This is not a religious book despite the title. This book represents one of the most amazing, terrifying and soul searching periods of anyone’s life. The journey Jacky went on was hard enough to witness let alone believe. Her account here only represents the tip of the iceberg and she has amazed me in achieving such a succinct re-telling which succeeds in getting across the real emotional impact of her incredible experience. That she not only survived this ordeal but came out a hundred times stronger, strong enough to start again and help others, is testament to her strength of character and spirit. Even in the middle of her own personal hell she was able to give to others and keep her sense of humour. “There were times we cried tears of laughter, sticking two manicured fingers up to the hand of fate, and there were times we cried tears of despair...”, but she never gave up, and she didn't just survive, she triumphed.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A review of The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

It’s almost 40 years since Margaret Drabble published The Waterfall, a novel, therefore, of the swinging, liberal, liberated sixties.. The scenario is simple. Jan and Malcolm and Lucy and James are two (heterosexual) couples. Then Jane initiates a shuffle of the cards and has an affair with James. By 2007 standards, this might provide enough material for page one of a contemporary inter-relationship novel. In Margaret Drabble’s hands it is more than enough to sustain a substantial book.

The narrative is seen entirely from Jane’s point of view. Alternately written in the first and third persons, we get to know Jane’s character from within and from without. She is not always honest, either with us or herself. She admits manipulation, duplicity, selfishness and infidelity. But they were the right things to do at the time, she convinces herself, the right things, that is, until she later reassesses what she did. So she justifies her inconsistencies, her whims, her foibles, her weaknesses through a belief that they were the right thing to do in the circumstances, at least as they unacceptably presented themselves. She is sometimes assertive, sometimes vulnerable, both satisfied and frustrated, accomplished and bereft. She hates sex, cannot cope with the physical contact of marriage, yet she finds herself with two children, and those after a first miscarried. It seems that for Jane every position is a default.

She is intensely analytical, however, extruding every aspect of her own psyche in every direction possible through the needle-eye of existence. And sometimes she meets herself going in the opposite direction, offers a greeting as she passes and remains unimpressed by the concept of contradiction. So in Jane we are presented with a character who appears to analyse every aspect of her life, of her very being, in forensic detail, only to ignore any conclusion that might arise. And for Jane, life changes on the day she discovers that James can give her what her husband seemed to promise, but was unable to fulfil. The Waterfall takes us through the minutiae of their relationship, examined from every possible angle, analysed down to the particulate. But we see everything from Jane’s point of view and, as I have already stated, this is not a consistent perspective.

Margaret Drabble provides the reader with some exceptional observations. Jane’s family, she tells us, believed in the God of the Church of England, and a whole host of other unlikely irreconcilable propositions, such as monogamy, marrying for love and free will. An aunt married a tradesman (Lord save us!), but she cultivated him so that he was at home with his professional relatives, and as capable as them of verbal malice. Jane describes herself as drifting sensibly into marriage. The class difference between Jane’s family and her husband’s was enjoyed by her own parents because it allowed them to indulge their passion for condescension. And these were the same parents who ate their hearts out in Surrey as they contemplated the forbidden fruits of prestige.

Margaret Drabble ostensibly presents Jane – and indeed Lucy, her cousin – as vulnerable females. Overtly – even internally – they are weak, perhaps wavering, unsure, forever unconvinced. But ultimately it’s the men involved who carry the weight, who become the tragedies. It seems that, at least in Margaret Drabble’s Waterfall, there exists in women, within an overtly vague vulnerability, a paradoxical and contradictory stern steel resolve which eventually endures.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A review of Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Disgrace is a novel of a man’s, even a family’s decline. David Lurie is a university teacher, the kind of teacher who was at home with academic material that current course requirements no longer demand. He is also divorced, twice, and even on his best form he has to grapple with the trials and tribulations that his frayed life and career present.

He needs regular sex and visits a prostitute with regularity, always the same one, and harbours suspicions that he provides her with more than just business. He also suffers from self-delusion. So when he has an affair with one of his students, he really believes that she wants him for what he is, despite his thirty years of seniority. He convinces himself that she is a willing participant. It turns sour. She reports him. There is a committee. He cooperates, perhaps, but not in the way required by mores with which he cannot identify. Conveniently, messily, he resigns. And he loses his benefits.

David goes off to live with his daughter in a rural area in the Eastern Cape. He discovers complexities in the relationship between white and black which were at least less apparent in the urban setting of Cape Town. He is willing to make compromises, but it is not going to be easy.

David and his daughter are then viciously attacked. Motives are clear, and then unclear. Relations between the father and daughter, and between the two of them and their black neighbours become difficult and strained. Old scores are being settled, perhaps. Older scores are being tallied. A new world demands that new details of inter-relation and inter-dependence be drawn, except that for David the art seems like freehand. No-one seems to be able to say what they want or what they feel.

To me, Disgrace seems to be about change and how we do or do not cope with it. It’s about how we want to continue asserting, for want of a better word, values – assumptions, perhaps – that might no longer apply. We would only know by reading the unspoken assumptions of others and interpreting them correctly. Disgrace is also about vengeance and punishment, about settling scores, about inclusion and exclusion. The story line is strong, but the overtones are stronger.

Disgrace is a book that presents individual experience and through that manages to comment on change within South Africa and its society, What has changed is not always for the better and what is retained is not always relevant. But these are reactions to assumptions, perhaps, rather than to any external reality, no matter whose it might be. On reflection, the overt simplicity of Disgrace is part of its complexity.

View this book on amazon Disgrace

Fascination by William Boyd: a virtuoso performance

Fascination by William Boyd is a set of sixteen short stories. This may not sound either surprising or original until one considers their form. The author uses at least nine different and clearly identifiable forms in which to present this work. One takes the form of a video. There are childhood memories, a diary, a journal, an A-to-Z listing. One story is a set of dialogues over lunch. Another is a set of monologues. And William Boyd’s use of these different forms is not just a writer’s trick to impress a critic. In each case to form complements the story, adds interpretation to the events and helps our understanding of the characters. Fascination is thus no less than a fascinating read, a tour de force in miniature by a great writer. 

 View the book on amazon Fascination

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A review of Going Home by Doris Lessing

It is fifty years since Doris Lessing published Going Home, an account of her return to Rhodesia, the country where she grew up. By then in her thirties, she had already achieved the status of restricted person because of her political allegiances and her declared opposition to illiberal white rule. These days Zimbabwe makes the news because of internal strife and oppression. It is worth remembering, however, that fifty years ago the very structures of Southern Rhodesian society were built upon oppression, an oppression based purely on race.

Fifty years on Doris Lessing’s Going Home an historical record of this noxious system, a record that is more effective, indeed more powerful because of its reflective and observational, rather than analytical style. Doris Lessing, a one-time card-carrying Communist, laid a large slice of the blame for the perpetuation of discrimination firmly at the door of the white working class. Though not all white workers were rich – indeed she records that many were abjectly poor – what they had and sought to preserve was an elevated status relative to the black population. She describes white artisans as white first and artisans second. Though trade unions actively sought equal pay for equal work, they never campaigned for any kind of parity for black workers. On the contrary, they demanded the maintenance of racially differentiated pay rates. How’s that for the spirit of socialist internationalism and brotherhood! (I accept there is a misplaced word there…). In fact Doris Lessing records that it was the relatively liberal capitalist enterprises that demanded more black labour, their motive of course arising from cost savings, not philanthropy. So trade unions spent much of their time making sure that companies hired their quota of higher paid, white labour.

Even in the 1950s, she remarks on the likelihood that many Africans were already better educated than their white counterparts. White youth shunned education as unnecessary, while Africans saw it as a possible salvation. She notes that the people who treated the African population the worst were recent immigrants from Europe, particularly those from Britain, who tended to be less educated themselves and drawn from the ranks of the politically reactionary. Such people, apparently, were equally critical of immigrants from southern Europe, and expected Spaniards and Greeks to work for African wages, not the white wages that they themselves demanded.

The situation in Rhodesia, clearly, had to change. Not only was such crass discrimination unsustainable, it was also comic, as are all racially posited class systems. While the South Africans over the border created honorary whites of the Japanese they increasingly had to do business with, the Rhodesians went through their own equally idiotic contortions. An example of such nonsense is quoted by Doris Lessing when she remarks that there was a privileged group of Africans who were granted the right not to carry passes with them at all times, as long as they carried a pass to record their exemption.

But it is also worth remembering that Doris Lessing, herself, was a banned person, unable to travel to certain places and very much under the watchful eyes of the authorities. In Going Home she observes a society that had to collapse under the weight of its unsustainable contradictions. The fact that this took more than twenty years after the book was written was nothing less than a crime, and probably contributed to the subsequent and equally lamentable reaction.

Doris Lessing records seeing a British film towards the end of her travels. She describes it as a “cosy little drama of provincial snobberies and homespun moralities played out in front of African farmers in their big cars”. Fifty years on, Britain is probably cosy and provincial, and the snobberies are still rife. But now it is not Rhodesia where these reactionaries look down on people of other races overpay and under-educated themselves. It is not in Africa where corporations would dearly love to employ cheaper labour, imported if need be. Rhodesia’s white privilege of the 1950s was obviously absurd. But there are some parallels with economic and class relations in the Britain of today and, like all good books, Doris Lessing’s Going Home may even add prescience to its qualities.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A review of The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of my greatest pleasures is eating, so I must cook. I savour, therefore I cook. I like tasty food made with fresh ingredients that address all four of our tastes – salt, sour, sweet and bitter – to create a complementary whole. Of course, there is now the fifth taste, unami, the expanding universe within soy sauce, that can amplify other inputs. I have just made an English pie, with chicken, mushrooms, a little diced bacon, seasoning and fresh herbs. It was moistened with stock and an egg before being baked in my own short-crust. Fresh gravy and vegetables alongside is all it will need. It thus has sweet, salt and bitter, but lacks sourness. A squeeze of lemon on the vegetables will compensate.

For the expansion, take one novel closely related to cooking and read. Do try the recipes, but proceed with care. Cook things right through before committing to taste. John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure is my recommendation. It’s a highly original, highly informative cookbook written by one Tarquin Winot, an expert in the field.

In one of the most original books I have ever read, John Lanchester creates a real anti-hero. Too often the concept is ironed onto a character who is just a naughty boy doing naughty, often repulsive things, the concept of “hero” being often ignored. Tarquin Winot, the anti-hero of The Debt to Pleasure, is a brilliant and learned cook. He is also highly creative, using ingredients that only those who might cook with a purpose would choose to use. He is also something of a psychopath, perhaps. That is for you to judge. But he has survived to write his cookbook and apparently savours his retirement, courtesy of those he has fed.

The Debt to Pleasure is a superb novel. Tarquin’s narrative draws the reader, perhaps unsuspecting, into his world, evoking an empathy with and for the character. That we have as yet only partially got to know this brilliant cook only becomes apparent as we proceed through his life, a life he has peppered with his personal peccadilloes. But above all, Tarquin Winot is both a planner and a perfectionist. His culinary creations are thought through, drafted like dramas to provoke particular responses, to achieve pre-meditated ends. They are also successful, appreciated by those who consume his concoctions, and eventually they succeed in precisely the way that he plans and executes.

Throughout, John Lanchester’s prose is a delight, as stimulating to the mind as his character’s creations might be to the palate. Florid and extravagant it might be at times, perhaps too much butter and cream for some diets. But The Debt to Pleasure is a satisfying, surprising and eventually fulfilling read. Tarquin fulfils both aspects of the anti-hero and ultimately we are left to grapple with the nature of self-obsession and selfishness.

View the book on amazon The Debt to Pleasure

Friday, November 23, 2007

A review of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes is a book I have had queuing up to read for some time. I don’t know why I have never got round to reading it. Perhaps it’s because of the overtly “literary” tag that was attached to it when it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. I am not against “literary” fiction. Far from it: indeed I aspire to write it, after a fashion. My avoidance of Flaubert’s Parrot was never conscious, but was probably a result of thinking that I knew what to expect – word play, experimentation with form, biography, dissection of the writer’s role, relationship between art and life, in fact all the mundane things that your average novelist has for breakfast. The less than average ones, by the way, always have corn flakes. It is their convention. Having just finished the book, I can declare that I found all I expected and much, much, much more.

Julian Barnes has his character, a doctor called Geoffrey Braithwaite, consider various literary ideas. One, which only really applies to writing prose fiction, is the relation between form and content. Most novels, certainly most pulp fiction, never address this, since the authors usually present apparently literal material merely literally or, perhaps even more commonly, fantastical material literally. Generally within some recognisable genre, these offerings tend to preoccupy themselves with simple narration. In effect, most novels are presented in pictorial form, like a comic strip running a frame at a time through the author’s mind, with only minimally extended commentary. Their presentation is invariably linear, with the writer’s aim to spoon-feed the reader with bite-sized chinks of easily digestible plot in a context aimed at simplifying the experience.

Flaubert’s Parrot is the polar opposite of this. The only plot is Flaubert’s life, both physical and intellectual, alongside that of his enthusiastic intended biographer, the doctor, Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s research, notes, speculations and musings provide the book’s utterly original form. Since the adultery of Flaubert’s fictional Madam Bovary provided the scandal that created his fame, evidence of his attitudes towards women and sex in his own life provides a fascinating backdrop against which we can assess the author’s motives and desires. The death and revealed adultery of the narrator’s own wife provides motive for his obsession with Flaubert and his femme fatale, and, quite unexpectedly, this culminates in a truly moving moment of emotional empathy that the author, Barnes, not Flaubert, not the narrator, evokes in his reader.

This emotional intensity developed as a real surprise towards the end of the book. Through it, Julian Barnes achieves a perfect marriage of form and content, the finest I have ever encountered. No matter how much we analyse the creative process, it is our emotional lives that provide the stuff of art. The writer moulds it, contextualises it, formalises it, but eventually the rawness of the experience, the chasm of bereavement, the hollow of betrayal, the consonance of love that makes us laugh or weep as we read, and Julian Barnes provokes both responses in this beautiful book.

There are some stunning moments of virtuosity. There are, for instance, three concatenated chronologies of Flaubert’s life – an encyclopedia of success, a record of failure and a personal diary. This is a masterstroke, effectively answering the rhetorical question of why we remain interested in the author, even when we consider a work as iconic as Madame Bovary. The narrator’s dissection of “correctness” in fiction is utterly poignant, especially so when we cannot even agree on the detail of reality. And so what if the writer decides to change things around? Isn’t it supposed to be fiction?

But the enduring memory of Flaubert’s Parrot is that masterstroke of marrying motives via Falubert’s real life, whatever that was, the imagined world of his femme fatale and the apparently real life of Geoffrey Braithwaite, with its own experience of adultery and bereavement. And then, of course, we have Geoffrey’s obsession with Flaubert, through which we reflect on the ideas of the self and its selfishness. Stunningly beautiful.

And the parrot? Probably a fake. Or perhaps just faked. Or then again….

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A review of The Valkyries by Paulo Coelho

I found Paulo Coelho’s The Valkyries a bit of an enigma. I suspect the author at least partly intended it to be so. In a nutshell, the author seeks to discover new aspects of his psyche, to develop new angles on his existing skills. After a consultation with his mentor, he and his wife set off for a jaunt in the Mojave Desert to find what it is that they seek. Our author is in engaged in a quest, a search for his personal Angel. The reader, I am sure, will be convinced from the start that she accompanied him throughout.

They wander off in full sun one day, take their clothes off (for some reason) and have to be rescued by Gene, who has seen it all before. He reassures the travellers that they will find their valkyries. And they do. They turn out to be a band of leather-clad women on motorbikes, ladies who have profound mystic powers which they practise amidst their regular partying.

I was a bit perplexed by the narrator who claimed to have trained as an engineer in one breath and then discussed the existence of the universe in terms of ancient Greek elements. I suspect that the high performance motorbikes relied on a rather more complex analysis of matter. But honing the skills of a magus apparently requires the application of ancient knowledge, no matter how wrong, whatever the context. And sure enough the revelations come flooding in and lives are duly transformed. I have just a suspicion that there is something in the observation that no matter what one does with reality, spirituality is necessarily a personal experience, its significance purely internal, even when shared with others.

The Valkyries has all the Paulo Coelho elements. There are short scenes presented in a variety of literary shorthand. The text is suffused with magic, religiosity and self-realisation set in an earthly medium. It’s a quick and easy read but ultimately a satisfying one, even for someone like myself, who cannot suspend belief long enough to share in the book’s experiences.

But Paulo Coelho is a magus and a magician of the highest order. He has sold over 90 million books and, as a writer myself, I will read more of his books in the hope that I might discover his magus touch, his waft of a wand that will reveal his secret. Even without sympathy for the detail, it’s a lovely, rhythmic read.

Costa Blanca Arts Update - A piano recital by Young-Joo Lee in Palau Altea, Altea, Spain

I claim to be a music lover and I attend a lot of concerts and recitals, so I don’t try to write a review every time, except for a few notes for my journal. But sometimes the playing is so perfect, the interpretations so poignant that the experience demands a record, if only to help publicise real, perhaps exceptional talent. 

And so it was with Young-Joo Lee, a Korean pianist. She gave her concert to the Amigos de la Musica de la Marina Baixa on November 9 2007 in Altea’s Palau on Spain’s Costa Blanca. In summary, her programme looked rather conventional. It featured Haydn, Rachmaninov, List, Ravel and Prokofiev. I envisaged a classical sonata played as a loosener, a couple of preludes, a showpiece, perhaps a little dead princess and then something from the tuneful end of Prokofiev to round things off. I am not suggesting that concert programmes offered to the Amigos de la Musica tend to be predictable. Quite the contrary, they tend to the ambitions, but then I am always sceptical of programmes that list only the composers’ names.

Young-Joo Lee did start with a Haydn sonata, but it was much more than the predicted loosener. She played the piece, Hob XVI:34 in E-minor, with charm, wit and real invention, with some of the rhythmic turns and cadences being delivered with an air of unexpected surprise. Haydn sonatas are rarely played this well, and, when they are, they are a revelation, a real ear-opener. 

She followed on with a quite rarely played set of variations by Rachmaninov. We all know the Paganini Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, but how many of us have ever heard a concert performance of the composer’s opus 42, the Variations on a Theme by Corelli? It’s a late work, written in a tougher style than the composer’s more familiar and generally more popular works. But it is a remarkably demanding piece, both in its execution and its realisation. Its twenty variations, plus intermezzo and coda, present a formidable challenge to the performer. They begin after the statement of Corelli’s little, apparently stalling tune, and require tremendous interpretive skill as well as technical mastery and Young-Joo Lee displayed brilliance in both areas to bring out the very best in the music. 

A set of variations can often descend into the presentation of a list, with each item interesting in itself, but the whole lacking coherence. Not so with this Rachmaninov, and much of the credit must go to the performer’s ability to identify and then communicate the grand design. Then we did have a real showpiece. Young-Joo Lee played the last of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes. It’s in A-minor and is based on the well known theme of the 24th Caprice for solo violin, the same theme that Rachmaninov used for his Rhapsody. Liszt’s treatment of the material is nothing less than pyrotechnic and as Young-Joo Lee played, there were times when her hands and arms were nothing but a blur. But often pianists present such pieces as if they were nothing more than a gymnastic display. It’s essential that everything should be in the right place, of course, but to achieve that state many players sacrifice the musical vision, as elegance and interpretation are muscled out by sheer technique. 

Not so with Young-Joo Lee. Not only was the piece a pianistic tour de force, it was also a thoroughly satisfying musical experience. The pyrotechnics made sense and became much more than the coloured bangs and flashes of random display. 

After the interval Young-Joo Lee presented her Ravel, which was the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Essentially this was the third piece in variation form on the trot. Under lesser hands, this could easily have become tedious, but Young-Joo Lee made it into a triumph. It was more than just an opportunity to show that she could handle the legato ambiguities of Ravel’s idiom after the confident force of the Liszt. She played with poignancy and power when needed. But she also never let the sense of the waltz become subsumed within the detail.

And then the Prokofiev. Young-Joo Lee offered us no less than the Seventh Sonata. Now the pianistic pyrotechnics needed an extra toughness, an almost industrial delivery through which the composer’s thematic and harmonic genius must shine. And Young-Joo Lee’s playing was not only up to the piece, it provided a complete revelation. To say that in the third movement she drove the car straight into the garage would be an understatement! It’s a piece that races towards its abrupt end, but to work it must be utterly relentless in its pursuit, never stalling, never anticipating. To describe her playing as close to perfect would be to do her an injustice. It was much better than that and, frankly, I think the audience was left utterly stunned. 

She offered a perfect encore in the form a Piazzolla tango and then retired for a well-deserved rest. Young-Joo Lee is an incredible talent. I do hope that her career as a soloist blossoms.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Europe revisited, reinterpreted - The Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth

A Ruby in Her Navel is yet another superb historical novel by Barry Unsworth. By his phenomenal standards, this book might at first appear somewhat one-paced, even one-dimensional, with its action set firmly in the place and time of its main character, Thurston Beauchamp, a young man in the service of King Roger of Sicily in the twelfth century. But if A Ruby in Her Navel might lack the immediacy and complexity of Stone Virgin, it approaches the beautifully portrayed picture of medieval life presented in Morality Play. Indeed, a group of travelling players also features in this novel, as in Morality Play, but this time it’s a troupe of belly dancers from Anatolia, on tour in southern Italy. The ruby and navel of the title both belong to Nasrin, the youngest, most beautiful and most provocative member of the group. But having written that they were touring Italy, a country name that in our eyes is merely mundane and perhaps innocuous, I am reminded of one of the most enduring features of Barry Unsworth’s book, which is its ability to re-draw one’s understanding of who we were.

It was Alison Weir who first did this for me, if you see what I mean. I read her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the marriageable lady who became King Henry the Second of England’s queen. Again, there’s the name of a country… You see, at school we British school children learned a variety of history that filtered everything through a sieve of contemporary national requirements. I can remember being taught that during the medieval era, the English ruled most of France and largely held onto it until the Wars of the Roses (I was brought up in Yorkshire, another irrelevant aside). Possessions remained until Queen Mary finally gave up Calais with a cardiac etch. Alison Weir undid a school lifetime of history when she described the Angevin Empire, part of the pan-European expansion of the Franks. Based in Anjou, this empire comprised what we now call southern, western and northern France, plus all of England and Wales, and other bits at times (though never Scotland, hence that nation’s long-lasting alliance with the rival empire based on the Ile de France). When interpreted this way, it wasn’t English kings that ruled France, or vice-versa. It was an empire with its own lingua franca, langue d’oc. The countries, and with them the geographical, ethnic and cultural assumptions upon which we falsely base our interpretation of the past, simply did not exist. Thus the paradigms upon which we base our understanding of English-ness or French-ness become both irrelevant and inapplicable. And thus the troupe of belly dancers in A Ruby in Her Navel weren’t, therefore, in Italy. They were in the Kingdom of Sicily, a small but powerful and ambitious little Norman empire created out of the same Frankish expansion that spurned the enduring conquest of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066.

In A Ruby in her Navel Barry Unsworth presents medieval Europe in a way that brings the historical issues into focus and gives them life. Lands were conquered and their Muslim leaders deposed. But the new rulers had to politic their way to continued incumbency, recognising the interests of land-hungry knights, only temporarily defeated Muslim predecessors with friends nearby, Jewish merchants who did pragmatic business with anyone and everyone. And even within these groups there were divisions. Amongst the Christians there were two competing blocks, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine remnants of Imperial Rome. And then there was the Pope with his own empire, interests and ability to raise an army. And then there were those who aspired to power from within and sought to depose a rival in their own house. The Crusades that primary school history presents has having something to do with religion thus become mere wars of conquest for booty.

In A Ruby in Her Navel Barry Unsworth thus gives immediate, tangible life to the feudalism of the time. We really do understand the politics, the interests, the motivations of the era. But we are led to it by our experience of the characters’ lives, not via instruction or polemic. And the message is more powerful for Thurston Beauchamp, because he aspires to the knighthood his father relinquished in favour of monasticism. Thurston is currently King Roger’s entertainments manager and has to travel to Italy (I am doing it again!) to buy herons, caged prey for the King’s peregrines. He does his deal, but meets the troupe of dancers and the resulting stirrings of the spirit provoke him to ship them back home to do the same for his master. He falls in love with Nasrin, one of the group. Meanwhile Alicia, Thurston’s childhood sweetheart, suddenly reappears in his life. They were at school together until she was whisked away at a marriageable fourteen to be conjoined to a knight with a big sword and real estate in the Middle East, the Norman Outremer. Alicia’s husband, it seems, has now snuffed it, and again Thurston’s spirits rise when he realises that she is again available, again an unaccompanied, unclaimed, newly-vacated vessel.

The belly dancers go down well at home, of course, and so Thurston’s star is in the ascendant. He gets a new mission, commissioned by he knows not who and which causes accounting difficulties for the Muslim “head of civil service” to whom he reports.

By now you have probably guessed that there is a plot. And it’s a vast one, involving insiders, outsiders, a pope or two, Muslims, Germans, Jews, Byzantines and all the other interests competing their share of or their consolidation of feudal power. This really is top-down government, but the trick, once power is achieved, clearly is just to hold on. And sometimes you consolidate your home base by having a fiddle or two on foreign soil, a political strategy not unknown in our own times.

Our Thurston analyses the plot, works it all out and then acts to influence the outcome. Along the way he grapples with his rising dilemma in relation to Nasrin and Alicia, and thus his life is eventually transformed. As in all ages, he follows his heart (by which, of course, I mean his brain). A Ruby in Her Navel thus reveals that, as ever with Barry Unsworth, it is a multi-layered, complex, surprising and yet deeply human tale.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A review of A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s “A Question of Upbringing” is the first part of his mammoth twelve novel epic “A Dance to the Music of Time”. He writes with wit, humour and not a little sarcasm, describing a quintessential Englishness that perhaps was never representative of the society and has, arguably, disappeared. He wrote this first volume in 1951 and, though the book starts with a London scene from that era, the majority of the book deals with the characters’ school and university experiences and recalls a time passed.

The main character is Jenkins. I will follow the author’s lead and use surnames only for males, surnames plus titles for married, older or otherwise unavailable women, and Christian names for eligible women, whether they be of a certain class or prone to wear flowery dresses while standing next to post boxes in the street. As his friend, Stringham, discovered, even some of the surname plus title women at times can prove highly eligible.

The book’s form is both simple and intriguing. It is so effective we almost miss the ingenuity of its construction. There are just four chapters, each in excess of fifty pages and each focused on one particular episode. We have school, a social gathering, a holiday in France and college undergraduate life. Powell’s writing has such a lightness of touch that we forget how intensely we are invited to analyse the circumstances of each chapter and how penetratingly we discover the characters’ lives. There is considerable innuendo, much gossip and usually piles of money, along with social status and influence wrapped up in every household.

The quintessence of their Englishness, like characters in the novels of Evelyn Waugh, arises out of their apparent inability to question – or perhaps even notice – their privilege. It’s a state they inhabit without either reflection or gratitude, so much taken for granted that it lies beyond doubt, its achievement apparently assumed, not expected. School means one of the better “public” schools. Going “up to university” assumes Oxbridge as a right, though Powell tinges this with the perennial blight of the English upper classes, intellectual paucity, by having several of his keen entrants “decide” not to complete a degree. One assumes that many of the others will take thirds before assuming their company chairs or ministerial portfolios. The army figures large in family histories, always at officer class, of course, and so does the City, where one can always become “something”. Even Americans, however, can be described as having “millionaire pedigree” on both sides, an economic status that presumably compensates for what is otherwise a palpable lack of breeding. When family members do not assume expected and assumed heights, they are referred to in hushed tones, the words “black sheep” perhaps not politically or at least socially correct even then.

But if this really was a quintessence of Englishness, it was a pretty rare ingredient. Maybe one or two per cent of the population went to the right school. Only about five or six per cent attended higher education of any sort, let alone a university one “went up to”. Neither Sandhurst nor corporate board rooms were populated by the masses. (They still aren’t!) And so this was a quintessence of separateness, of rarefied heights in an extended class system and, certainly by the 1950s, some of these peaks had been scaled by other aspirants, using new climbing techniques eschewed by the incumbents of years.

And so “A Question of Upbringing” reveals its duality. It’s a tale that celebrates a time lost, a nostalgic peek into a remembered adolescence where a hand placed apparently carelessly and always momentarily upon that of a member of the opposite sex remained a daring highpoint of teenage years.

Nostalgia is always tinged with loss, however. Early in the book, Powell describes the school thus: “Silted-up residues of the years smouldered interruptedly – and not without melancholy – in the maroon brickwork of these medieval closes: beyond the cobbles and archways of which (in a more northerly direction) memory also brooded, no less enigmatic and inconsolable, among water-meadows and avenues of trees: the sombre demands of the past becoming at times almost suffocating in their insistence.”

And how about this for a presumption of affluence: “It was a rather gloomy double-fronted façade in a small street near Berkeley Square: the pillars of the entrance flanked on either side with hollow cones for the linkmen to extinguish their torches.” And we notice we are in a different age when Powell has his lads pick up two girls off the street to joy-ride in a new Vauxhall. Without a suggestion of tongue-in-cheek or indeed relish he can write that: “The girls could not have made more noise if they had been having their throats cut.”

When I first read Anthony Powell, I could not get past my ingrained hatred of this class and its power-assuming, wealth-inheriting inhabitants. It was a country that was not mine. I come to it now a little wiser and a little richer myself, richer in experience at least, and now I can appreciate the irony that my previous naivety ignored. I now look forward with some relish to the next eleven episodes. “[book:A Dance to the Music of Time|16113]” is certainly a masterpiece to be revisited.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Silk Road Trip, or I Gobbed in the Gobi, China,1992, by Philip Spires

In August 1992, myself and my wife, Caroline, arranged a trip to post-Tiananmen China. It was in the days when the London China Travel office was on Cambridge Circus, opposite the Palace Theatre on Charing Cross Road. It took me at least twenty books, a late-night Japanese television series and several months to plan and arrange the trip from what was then our base in Balham, south London. In those days, you could arrange the visit via China Travel and then, as long as the itinerary was lodged in advance, you could travel absolutely independently. Everything was pre-paid, but on setting off, we had no tickets or confirmed reservations apart from our air tickets in and out of Beijing. As ever, I kept a journal of the trip, which ran to more than fifty pages. A few years later, I condensed the experience to two sides of A4, ignoring rules of grammar and syntax, and produced the following ramble, a perhaps poetic impression of nearly a month of travel.

Ex-London while the Sun dissected Michael Jackson's nose and praised Boardman's hooterless gold-medal bicycle. Air China to Beijing, where taxis cost more than Lonely Planet predicts. A Chinese character itinerary from one Tim Han of China Travel whilst fellow workers drool over televised lithe Afro-American sprinters at the Olympics. Then to the no-longer Forbidden City. Piles of local tourists to negotiate.

Four hours of Xinjiang Airlines to Urumqi. Signs in Chinese and Russian plus Uigur written in Arab script (a recent innovation). Land lines across Inner Mongolia. Why and how so straight? Urumqi multiple-peaked. Piles of coal, scruffy high rise, snow-capped Bogda Shen at street-end. Pavement fortune tellers, traders. Food stalls. Women washing sheeps' stomachs in a stream, tripe kebabs. Uigur town now Han Chinese, populated by Shanghai overspill, over 2000 miles from ‘home’. The second long march.

Uigur breakfast. Hot sheep's milk, Chinese tea, flat tomato bread, sugared tomato and cucumber, pickled cabbage, thin congee, sheep's milk butter, two giant sugar lumps. Uigur market. Fruits amid a forest of hanging lamb. Chinese market. Live vegetables and meats. Tank over-spilling with energetic eels (unit price). Self-knotting spaghetti.

Woman losing her gold watch at an illegal 'find the lady'. Policeman looking on. Tears when the loss hits home. Renmin Park for noodles and rocket-fuel chili sauce. Bag slashers with finger-ring knives on a crowded bus. Care needed.

Car to Turfan. Fertile valleys. Barren mountains. Occasional snow. Road ploughed. Kazak yurts. Semi-sunken shade-making rammed-earth Uigur villages, invisible at a distance save for chimney smoke. Steep downhill gorge, spectacular river, rocks, white water and slate-grey hills. Into Turfan depression, snow-capped distance surrounding grey stone pit 100 miles across. 42 degrees at its base, 200 metres below sea level. Car ahead leaving tracks on molten road. A hefty gob from the driver irrigates. Gobi means stones. Plenty here. And then green. An oasis. A giant mirage?

Turfan. Latticed vines for street-shade. Hanging raisin grapes. 15 yuan fine for casual picking. Hotel tea in galvanised buckets. Turkish-style dancing and music. Genghiz-sacked rammed-earth cities of Goachang and Jiaohe. Painted tombs and brick minarets. Flaming mountains. Karez underground irrigation system. 3000 kilometres of channels. 1500 years old, gravity-fed from mountains at the depression-edge. Uigur culture's greatest feat, and in full working order.

Bus to Daheyan. Two hours over bumpy stones to depression-edge. Dump of a railway town. Coal heaps, box buildings, waste land. Two women at war on station forecourt. Ramming victim's head onto the ground. Blood. Onlookers. Inaction. A tense town of resentful postees.

500 miles to Liuyuan in Gansu. Featureless flat grey shale stone. Spectacularly unique. Snow mountains to the north. Utterly empty, save for smoking coal towns. 40 above in summer, 30 below in winter. Overnight by train. Dawn reveals same massive scene, now in brown.

Arrive Liuyuan. Daheyan writ similar. 120 miles south across the desert (black at first!), past remnant ramparts of Han Dynasty Greater-Great Wall. Camels and dunes of Taklimakan, world's largest sand desert. Near Dunhuang oasis blossoms again. Sand and scree suddenly crop and tree. Feitian Hotel, with complimentary toiletries labelled Sham Poo and Foam Poo. Lunch. Fourteen dishes. Duck, foo-yong, cucumber, cabbage, oyster mushroom chicken, coriander pork, steamed buns, steamed bread, rice, beef broth and noodles, pork and green beans, pork and sweet chili, chicken and squash, plain noodles, water melon. Then to get the essential torch for the caves. Houses huddled together. Wood stores for winter piled on top. View across the roofs like a scrap heap. Ground level claustrophobic stoneware maze.

Cave day. Mogao Buddhist caves - closed from 12 to 2, full day needed for perhaps the most stunning sight on earth. 400 'caves' (some cathedral size) in a sandstone gorge, between 400 AD to 1100 AD. Utterly dry, always dark, perfectly preserved. Everything painted. Tang period complex and colourful. A world of scenes by torchlight. Buddhas reclining, sitting, standing, posing. Thirty metre seated figure with thousands of unsmoked cigarettes and coins on his lap as offerings. Shock of Qing-renovated cave with Taoist figures. Ghoulish features, contorted, and a face in the groin. 40 caves seen in the day, archaeologist as a personal guide. Stunning. Fourteen dishes for dinner.

Desert bus back to Liuyuan. Always a fight for seats. Three dusty hours. Train to Lanzhou. 800 miles along Gansu-Qinghai mountainous border. More black desert, then yellow earth. Jaiyaguan fort at the limit of the Ming empire. Overnight by train. Country changed. Mountain pass, green rolling hills and stepped fields. Wheat harvest in. Straw dollies like children at assembly. Houses still of rammed earth. Lanzhou a thriving industrial city. Thirty hours of travel. Walk by Yellow River.

Fish in hotel restaurant tank all dead. Lanzhou bus expensive. 50 fen per trip. Radios and knitting banned. Han dynasty flying horse and bronze warriors. Steamed carp with rape on menu. The fish comes first. Train to Xian through yellow loess country. Deep furrows and gorges. All flat land cropped. 500 miles overnight.

Terra cotta warriors facing east to guard Qin Shihuang's tomb. Made in pieces. Assembled in situ. Partly excavated section where piles of dismembered limbs emerge from the earth. New terra cotta warriors for sale from the factory behind the museum. Exact replicas of originals. Wheeze at the thought of the whole thing as a sham for the tourist trade.

Xian, like all Chinese cities, a square. Roads straight, intersecting always at right angles. Ancient centre walled, Ming rebuilt. Old mosque exquisite. Xianyang nearby, with Seventh century Qian tombs, museum with another 3000 Han terra cottas like a football crowd. Train to Beijing. 800 miles, 26 hours. Houses often caves in valley side. Later immense flat land, maize everywhere.

Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, and then Beijing Opera. Pause for beer at wayside stall. Served by moonlighting trainee stockbroker! Breakfast pickle amazing, like four year old camembert out of a shotgun. Takes the head off. Great Wall. Mucho touristico, but still stunning. Like climbing a giant ladder in places. "I climbed the Great Wall" T-shirts, prices lower the further you climb. Must be the air. Ming tombs dismissed by guide-book. Wrong. Amazing barrel vaulted rooms nine stories underground. Jade doors, carved thrones, marble, marble, marvel. Reminiscent of renaissance Italy. Everlasting bricks etched with names of their makers. Souvenir jade boat for £55000.

White drapes over erotic statues in Tibetan Lama Temple. Same bestial content in wall paintings. 24 metre gold Buddha through the incense-blur. No smoking signs everywhere.

Mao's Maosoleum an emperor's tomb. Lines for queues painted across the square. Feet pointing north towards Tiananmen Gate, upside-down feng shui. He is shiny, waxy and painted about the face. Moving lines file past on either side. No pausing. Outside, stalls with Mao T-shirts, Mao key rings, cuddly toys, post cards, magic lantern shows. Mao Zedong candy floss by the armful. Then Great Hall of the People. Dining room for 5000. Now fast food for tourists. Great Hall chop sticks, cigarettes, T-shirts. Great Hall of the People cuddly toys.

2500 miles. Three and a half weeks. 5 destinations. 50 caves. 6000 terra cotta warriors. 1 each Great Wall, Forbidden City, Beijing Opera, Mao Zedong. Hundreds of tombs, temples, pagodas, parks, bendi-buses and bicycles. 3 silk shirts on the Silk Road. One amazing trip.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser tales by George Bernard Shaw

The title piece in this anthology is a parable on the nature of religious belief. When first published in 1932 it caused quite a stir and I wondered whether the intervening 75 years might have rendered it something less of a shocker. I found that, apart from one violation of current political correctness and a few inevitable stylistic issues, the message had lost none of its poignancy and perhaps little of its ability to shock.

The Black Girl in Search of God is not a novel or a novella. It is not really a short story either. I choose to describe it as a parable because others have, but equally it could be classed alongside Plato’s symposium as a vehicle for examining a philosophical idea. It’s not a discourse, but it could be a meditation, albeit a rather energetic one. The idea in question, of course, is the nature of religious belief.

The Black Girl of the title is only cast as such, I think, to provide Shaw with a literary vehicle to convey his otherwise naïve questions about Christianity. To this end, The Black Girl is presented as a “noble savage”, and thus a tabula rasa. It is here – and only here – that Shaw violates current correctness. The character could have been cast as a child, but then she could not have threatened to wield her knobkerrie, her weapon, and nor could she have been portrayed as bringing no tradition of her own. We must accept, therefore, that there remains a functionality about the role of this character. She does not represent anything, except her ability to ask the questions she is required to ask.

The Black Girl has been converted to Christianity by a young British woman who has taken delight in amorously jilting a series of vicars. She then becomes a missionary, despite her clearly thin grasp of the subject matter. She is, perhaps, an allegory of colonial expansion. She goes abroad to teach others despite not having achieved fulfilment or knowledge in her own life. It might be important that the teacher and the taught are both women.

When her convert starts asking questions, fundamental questions that the missionary herself has never heard asked, never mind answered, she reverts to invention, not scholarship. Shaw’s intention is clear. She invents myth to mystify myth. And this cloak satisfies the curiosity of the average Christian, but not The Black Girl, who thus goes off in search of God.

And, guided by snakes, she finds Him. And not just once, because there is more than one God in the Bible she carries. There is the God of Wrath, who demands the sacrifice of her child. When she cannot comply, He demands she find her father so he can sacrifice her. A good part of the Bible thus disappears from her new-found faith.

She meets an apparent God of Love, but he laughs at Job for being so naively and blindly devout. More of her book blows away.

She meets prophets who, one by one, deliver their different messages, most of which conflict and communicate individual political positions or bigotry rather than personal revelation.

On the way she belittles Imperial power and male domination. She learns that most “civilised” countries have given up on God and hears a plea that people like her should not be taught things that the mother country no longer believes.

Scientists offer her equally conflicting opinions. They are careful only to describe, never to conclude or interpret. In a way, they are just modern prophets, each with their own interested positions.

There is an amazing episode where a mathematician implores her to consider complex numbers, the square root of minus x, which The Black Girl hears as Myna sex or perhaps its homophone minor sex, and is clearly a reference to feminism. Along with economic power and male dominance, The Black Girl sees guns as the highest achievement of white society. This anticipates the description of colonialism’s trinity in Ngugi’s Petals of Blood.

Then, in a strange section, an Arab discusses belief with a conjuror. These appear to be a pair of major prophets in thin disguise. But their discussions merely confuse the girl and their words skirt her questions.

And so she meets an Irishman, marries and settles down. She devotes herself to him, their coffee-coloured children and the fruits of their garden. Note that she does not devote herself to herself. She projects out, does not analyse within. And in this utterly humanist universe she finds not only personal happiness, but also fulfilment and, with that, answers to her own metaphysical questions that religion per se could not even address.

And so, as the parable closes, we ponder whether the Irishman she marries is Shaw, and whether The Black Girl is the questioning, non-racist, non-sexist, socialist and humanist vision of the future he has personally espoused.

And as for the Lesser Tales, they are generally lesser. Don Giovanni explaining himself was fun and the Death of an Old Revolutionary Hero was prescient of the role of the Socialist Workers’ Party adopted in maintaining Margaret Thatcher in power in the 1980s. A great, historical and fundamentally contemporary read.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Up and Down in Toledo, the expected and the surprising

I have wanted to visit Toledo for at least forty years and for one particular reason, being the canvases of Domenicos Theotokopoulos, or El Greco as we have learned to call him. Well, now I have been and I found what I sought, plus a truly amazing and unexpected surprise.

Toledo is one of those celebrity tourist destinations that defy categorization. It was a trading centre in Roman times. It was the Visigoth’s capital in what we still call the Dark Ages. It became a splendid, rich, cosmopolitan, multi-faith trading city and artistic centre under Muslim rule. The Christian era saw the construction and decoration of the institutions and monuments that now comprise the city’s current iconic identity. And, after the period of relative decline that affected all of Spain, it is now one of the world’s most visited tourist venues whilst retaining its own, highly dignified life.

Its setting is superb. Almost surrounded by the Rio Tajo, the outcrop towers over the gorge. And it is topped by a mass of buildings, each of which seems to state its own competitive claim to grandeur. Few of them can challenge the sheer scale of either the Alcazar or the cathedral. The former is much reconstructed and rebuilt after being fought over many times, but its vast scale alone impresses, and surely, courtesy of El Greco’s painted cityscapes, is one of the most recognizable buildings one earth. The cathedral, on the other hand, is both monumental and aesthetically pleasing. Its pictures include El Greco portraits of the saints and an amazing, near cubist Madonna by Morales. One chapel has portraits of all the archbishops who have reigned there. The treasury has five hundred years of their robes. And the ambulatory behind the altar has some of their cardinal’s hats hanging from the ceiling. Apparently they are hung over the owner’s tombs and remain there until they rot. The hats, that is.

There’s an interesting point to be made about a visit to one of the town’s smaller buildings, the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca. The period of Muslim rule was marked by great tolerance. Though the different religious communities had their own areas of the city, Christians, Jews and Muslims built their own churches, synagogues and mosques. But after the re-conquest, Christianity asserted its dominant and normative creed and everything except the churches was suppressed. So the synagogue became a church. An altarpiece was erected in front of the holy wall and arches were bricked up so that Christian paintings could be added. And since the Christians actually did not believe that Jews and Muslims had actually converted, a Holy Inquisition was established was established to identify dissenters. It was not long after this turbulent period that el Greco arrived in Toledo.

Domenicos Theotokopoulos left Crete to train as an artist in Venice. By 1577 he had settled in Toledo and there he stayed. His unique style, a blend of high Renaissance, Orthodox Church iconography and emerging Mannerism is both instantly recognizable and supremely expressive. His use of light - or often lack of it, since he often painted in the dark – gives his canvases a strangely ethereal whiteness which so often seems to stress the humanity and therefore vulnerability of his subjects.

El Greco’s work, of course, is represented in major collections throughout the world and, it could be argued, the collection in the Prado far exceeds in importance and sensation what remains in Toledo. But in the city’s San Tomé church, still in the place for which it was conceived, is the painter’s masterpiece, the Burial of Señor Orgaz. It’s so well known that the experience of standing before it might provoke déjà vu or anti-climax but, like all true masterpieces, it transcends even its own reputation by offering much more than its expectation. Painted in 1586, it depicts the interment of a medieval knight, a resident of Toledo, philanthropist and benefactor of the Sane Tomé church. In the foreground, Señor Orgaz’s body is laid to rest. Meanwhile, towards the top, his soul is admitted to heaven. Across the entire width of the picture a line of mourners faces serves to separate the worldly lower half from the heavens above. Each person is a unique individual, each offering a different emotional and perhaps political response to the burial. In the swirling heavens above, human gravity has no place. There, everything glows with a cool white light, perhaps suggesting cascades of water rather than flights of passion. And it’s the row of human heads, with their intellects perhaps combined, that forms the boundary between the material world below and the ethereal heavens above. A true Renaissance message.

There are other El Greco originals and several copies elsewhere in the city, in Santo Domingo Antiguo, the cathedral, Santa Cruz museum and Tavera museum. Perhaps only the artist himself knows why so many of the people in his paintings have pointed noses. But if all Toledo had to offer was the Burial of Señor Orgaz it would still demand a visit.

The other venue with El Greco paintings is the Casa del Greco, but this is closed for restoration. There are a couple of very well known paintings in that collection, notably a view of the city with a map, so they have been re-housed in the nearby Victorio Macho museum.

Given my motivation for visiting Toledo, I doubt whether I would have made the Victorio Macho museum a priority. He’s a twentieth century sculptor, born in Palencia, Spain, and who spent many years in Peru. It was the El Greco paintings, re-housed there, that drew me, but I left having experienced one of those wonderful surprises that renders a particular trip not just memorable but etched in the mind, never to be forgotten. Macho’s work is astoundingly beautiful. There are bronzes, stonework and drawings. His series of self portraits is masterful, the face full of doubt, but its representation a model of expression and confident technique. A female nude from the back entitled The Guitar is memorable, to say the least. But the most stunning piece was the one a fellow visitor described as just like her grandmother. A small old woman dressed entirely in black sits alone with her head ever so slightly bowed. The head and hands are white. Her expression at first seems detached, at least contemplative, perhaps rather aloof and judgmental. But it changes. A hint of a smile appears as you study her face. And then the sculpture seems to suggest the woman’s entire life. She is simultaneously old and young, with the contrast of white flesh and black clothes suggesting youth and age. And it’s all there in that enigmatic face.

So having found in Toledo the experience I sought, an experience of a quality I had expected, the works of Victorio Macho provided the surprise which made the visit utterly memorable.