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.