Thursday, September 17, 2020

Crown of Blood, The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis

When they advance, pawns become queens. But to advance, they usually need support from a bishop or a knight from behind the walls of a castle, assuming, of course, that the king, as usual, remains capable of relatively little, but also assuming that he, himself, survives. Without that living male, promotion to queen cannot happen. But by what rules and in which game does a pawn become advanced by such castles, knights and bishops to find herself still a pawn, a queen in name only, and only for long enough to arrange her own decapitation? The King, of course, had not survived, and a queen without a King breaks the rules. Young women called Jane Grey seem to have been particularly vulnerable to this fate.

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis is, effectively, a political biography of Queen Jane, the first woman to be named as the occupant of the English throne and the only occupant never to have been crowned. Born of the Tudor line, Jane's claim to the English throne was significant. Her grandmother had been Mary Tudor, youngest daughter of Henry VII and she was thus a full cousin to the King, Edward VI.

In the mid-16th century, England was riven by political difference driven by religious and ideological conflict and was further plunged into confusion by the untimely death of Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII. But Henry's two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, had by some, including at one stage their own father, been branded as illegitimate, and therefore ineligible to inherit the throne. Confusion still surrounds exactly what Henry VIII, himself, thought of their individual succession rights. After the birth of a son, Edward, the matter was irrelevant, in any case.

Edward, a staunch Protestant, above all else wanted his own version of the Christian faith to prevail. He was a teenager when he started to ail, and his thoughts were turned reluctantly towards his succession and the continuance of the religious revolution he had furthered was uppermost in his prioritied. Thus he nominated Jane Grey as his successor, the move calculated both to promote his Protestantism and to discredit his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, one because she was a Catholic and the other because her mother had, it was alleged, humiliated his father through acts of infidelity. In his eyes neither was worthy of the crown. Lady Jane Grey, on the other hand, was a pious Protestant, from a good family, of Royal Blood and of serious, even learned disposition. Ostensibly, she even had the support of several nights and even a bishop, plus that of her ambitious family in their castle. These could have been the perfect circumstances to promote her advancement to queen. Amongst her backers, however, it was ambition and self-interest that unfortunately underpinned support for the teenage Lady Jane and, as a woman, she was powerless either to influence or counteract that scheming.

Thus, she was married to one Guildford to make a friendly alliance between powerful families, declared queen and admitted to the tower of London for her own safety. Mary, however, had popular support by virtue of her having been King Henry's first daughter and a military skirmish confirmed her greater and now pragmatic claim to the throne. Jane Grey’s protection in the tower thus became imprisonment under the influence of a victorious Mary. Jane’s supporters largely disowned her, while those who didn't lost their heads and their innards. Jane herself was tried, found guilty of treason and beheaded. Mary showed clemency in deciding not to burn her cousin.

What is so upsetting about this story is its apparent inevitability. Jane's major problem, it seemed, was that she was a woman. She had no rights. She was a mere pawn, moved at will by others and advanced for their own gain. Her story is this is not a tragedy, but a conspiracy. She was party to that conspiracy, but she was also trapped and probably could not have extricated herself from its vice, even if she had tried harder to do so. Like women of her age, she was chattel, so much meat to be haggled over by a bunch of property-owning, self-promoting barrow-boys looking for a profit.

The raw and calculated callousness exhibited by anyone in the position of power or influence over the life or status of Lady Jane Grey is more than merely shocking. Its consequences are genuinely upsetting. Here was a young woman used and then discarded when her attributes did not profit those who backed her. The example this presents reminds us that there were many others, who were not royal, who suffered similar but unrecorded fates.

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis examines this history in fine and accurate detail. This is a serious study of the political and legal dimensions of the case. But is also a biography, and the delves as deeply as sources allow into the background, development and character of Lady Jane Grey. The author offers a truly historical account, researching sources and judging their veracity or otherwise. Even in history, it is always easier to make it up, to deliver what current values assume. But that is fiction, not history, and Nicola Tallis’s book always inhabits what can be justified.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that Lady Jane Grey was also known as Jane Dudley, because that would remind us of the family’s status just a few years later when Robert Dudley became the favourite of Elizabeth I. Indeed, part of the case that was eventually levelled against Robert Dudley referred back to the treasonous activities of the family in relation to Lady Jane’s advancement to queen.

As is often the case in history, the rich and powerful can bathe their hands in blood, knowing that the consequences will never come their way. Reading details of the callous intrigue, the self-promotion and sheer selfishness that surrounded the elevation and then decapitation of this young woman reminds us of how much, or indeed how little, has changed since the sixteenth century.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

History of Modern Art by H H Arnason

  

H H Arnason’s History of Modern Art is certainly worth reading. Even if you have no interest in art, you will at least benefit from the weightlifting. This is not a tome: it's almost a library in paperback. And it needs to be extensive, since the term “modern” can mean anything to anyone, even when the significance of the perhaps more problematic term “art” is pre-agreed.

The book is true to its title in that it not only catalogues the movements, the individuals and the concepts that have created what we called modern art, it's also traces the origins of the concept of modernism, itself. Each “ism” of the artistic philosophy and history is listed, its essential characteristics are described and its principal protagonists introduced. There is usually one illustration per artist, always with an associated and insightful mini critique from the author. Occasionally, there are two or three illustrations per artist, and sometimes artists appear in more than one chapter, indicating they underwent stylistic transformations during the modern era. It should be noted that there are very few such artists, indicating how rare such stylistic flexibility has been manifest.

Most readers of this History of Modern Art by H H Arnason will surely want to use it like an encyclopedia that catalogues individual artists. And, of course, the work will function perfectly well as a reference book, since it is explicitly indexed and provides an extensive bibliography. But the quality of the author’s narrative style renders it both a coherent and rewarding read, cover to distant cover.

The material deals with painting, sculpture, architecture and photography. It focuses on the 20th century, which is surely more than enough for one volume. It does tend to concentrate on the United States, but Europe does figure large alongside it. There are examples from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australasia as well. Since the book concentrates on styles and movements, there is just a chapter or two devoted continents other than Europe or North America. The coverage, however, is undeniably extensive.

What is the History of Modern Art demonstrates, however, is how this modern era has increasingly enshrined the status of the individual and his or her personal experience. Thus, as the 20th century progresses from broader movements such as Impressionism or Expressionism towards the perhaps the quintessential personal statement of Performance, we feel that the artistic expression becomes progressively a more private, internal reality publicly displayed. Art, arguably, has always been like this, but it seems that as the 20th century progressed, not only the content but also the language of the expression became ever more personalized and individual. Individual artists and even individual works thus confront the observer with the dual challenge of relating to an object via its own language. The viewer cannot assume anything, cannot expect to take familiar routes or arrive at envisaged destinations. And it is here the H H Arnason's work excels, because the author provides carefully constructed, succinct descriptions of style, motivation and form, alongside potted critiques of each illustrated work.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how the author juxtaposes is the apparently increasing tendency for art to present protest within the context of having to market a product. The inter-relationships between individual, community, capitalism, mass production, consumerism and objectification recur throughout the text, and the comments are always enlightening. So, anyone who is interested to say, “I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like”, should read this History of Modern Art from beginning to end and then the void of the first part of the quote might at least be partially filled. And for those who already know something, the book will pleasurably lead to more.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari


When reading history, it's always instructive and insightful to step back and consider the “big picture”. Detail, though essential, indeed the very stuff of any understanding of history, can sometimes weave a web of obscurity and confusion around the obvious. The big picture, then, allows a reader to prioritize, to contextualize and to rationalize. What, then, might we make of a book which presents hardly any detail, but just a swift sketch of a big picture? Indeed, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari presents a picture of history so big it purports to be nothing less than a birth to death biography of homo sapiens, the current and dominant human species, in case you have yet to meet one.

From evolutionary beginnings through the establishment of our genetic identity, Yuval Noah Harari charts of the human tendency to form social groups, use tools and language, while sustaining ourselves by hunting and gathering. We exit Africa – somehow, probably thanks to assistance from contemporary climate change - and eventually become established across the planet. Via our Cognitive Revolution we developed our early skills and became rather good at most things we tried to do. Perhaps two good.

Success, perhaps, led to an Agricultural Revolution, where suddenly property became a concept. We domesticated animals, selectively bred yield into crops and docility into beasts of burden. We also succumbed to other new concepts such as epidemics. Note here that an unknown number of millennia intervened between stage one, the Cognitive, and stage two, the Agricultural. Writing also intervened at some point, but probably only after we invented property, for only then did we start to train accountants.

Agriculture, this new mode of production, effectively unified the human race, however. It was so successful that it spread to wherever humans ventured, and progressively this had become the entire planet. But this relatively sedentary lifestyles and the emerging possibility of control of economic resources led to the establishment of towns and villages, empires, armies, castles and probably soft furnishings.

And then there was Science and human kind’s increased ability to predict or control the physical world beyond the lifecycles of plants or docile servant beasts. Beginning barely 300 years ago, this latest, current and possibly last human revolution is still with us. It led to the invention of countless previously non-existent concepts, such as capitalism and socialism, mass consumption and ideological veganism, exponentially increased energy consumption, a Green Revolution that perhaps laid waste, genetic engineering, the internet, artificial intelligence and breakfast cereals.

Throughout, Yuval Noah Harari identifies identifies the human need to create myth. And this has real purpose in our race’s modus vivendi. Without myths called religion, human beings would never have been able to conquer the genetic necessity of individual competition. We would not have become urbanized or cooperated to solve the complex tasks that exploiting our planet requires. Harari’s grouping together of all such mythical motivation – and thereby his dismissal of its representing anything approaching the concept of truth – might have led to the book and the author falling foul of certain authorities across the globe, if past experience is anything to trust. Perhaps this also tells us something about what kinds of book the committed religious don’t read.

Thus through the 400 pages or so of Sapiens we can relive the entire history of the human race and travel centuries into its speculated future. Though it is easy to sound flippant about a book that presents itself almost as a biography of homo sapiens, there is hardly a page of the work that is not stimulating, informative or even surprising, all at the same time. Such broad pictures are perhaps easy to write, especially if they are in accurate or polemical. But that when they are well researched, lucidly written, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking, their construction of a big picture really does help us to understand and contextualize the details of history which otherwise may not constitute joined-up thinking. Sapiens is a thought-provoking and challenging work, claiming to be A Brief History of Mankind. By the end we are eager for more, but also not convinced there will be much more to write.

Monday, September 7, 2020

All Too Human - Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life edited by Elena Crippa

All Too Human - Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life edited by Elena Crippa is a catalogue for a 2018 exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery. It's a present works by the titled painters, plus several others who comprise what the compilers describe as a London Group. A weakness in the presentation is the labelling of these artists as a Group simply by virtue of their having lived in London and largely studied at a small number of the capital’s schools. Styles here are often divergent. Paula Rego, one of the featured artists, is Portuguese but trained and for a while lived in London. Kitaj also was not British, but London seems for him to have been home.

But perhaps this divergent list of artists represents a particular strength of London, being its cosmopolitan sophistication. Lucian Freud was from an immigrant family as a result of his eminent grandfather's flight from Nazism. John Singer Sergeant was American. Francis Newton Souza, also featured throughout the book, was from Goa. Celia Paul is British, but was born in India. Chaime Soutine, elements of whose style were either adopted or at least appreciated by some of the featured artists, was Russian. Just to complicate things further, he was Jewish, trained in France, was born in what is now Belarus and influenced artists working in London. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born to a family of Ghanaian immigrants to Britain. David Bomberg also studied, lived and worked in London, but he was Birmingham-born to a family of Polish immigrants. Again, this is London’s strength and, indeed, its very identity. It is big, cosmopolitan and sophisticated - big in ideas as well as in size, cosmopolitan in outlook as well as by population and sophisticated enough to welcome diversity and not be threatened by people’s freedom of movement or, for that matter, freedom of expression. London is thus different from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is even different from the rest of the United Kingdom’s cities, and so the catalogue’s claim of “London Group” for these diverse artists goes beyond merely artistic considerations. It also, arguably, undermines its own intention by creating a label that is shared only because those included in its sphere are so diverse as to share, arguably, little in common.

The contributors offer insights rather than analyses. And this is a strength of the narrative, since analysis is in the eye of the viewer of these works. Their comments are often descriptive but, with the exception of Andrew Brighton’s essay, always apposite. Again, with one exception, they clarify and inform our ability to observe these works, all of which, in some way or other, concentrate on the human form. Where the body is not immediately apparent, its presence is at least implied, even essential to our interpretation of a response to these paintings.

Bacon’s tormented forms, Freud's brutally interpretive brush strokes, Yiadom-Boakye’s often frozen dancers, Kitaj’s suffering hedonists, Paul's apparently apologetic presence, Newton Sousa’s Byzantine saints, Rego’s stocky surfaces, all of these and more are presented to illustrate how we inhabit the images of our bodies through different eyes. Neither the exhibition nor its catalogue aims at anything like coherence or completeness and does not approach either. But that would miss the real point, which is that we imagine ourselves, image ourselves and represent ourselves. We do not control how others see see us or interpret what they see. But what these artists via this exhibition and catalogue do communicate without ambiguity is that there exist as many ways of seeing the world and as many ways of interpreting human presence within it as there are eyes that see it. And note: many of us also have more than one eye.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Long Take by Robin Robertson

The Long Take by Robin Robertson is a novel. As its title implies, it owes much to film and is conceived as a series of cinematic scenes set in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They alternate between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and follow the progress of Walker, who is trying to earn a living, survive and become a journalist. The scenes are arranged chronologically, but there is no attempt by the author to link them as a narrative. They thus present the reader almost with glanced insights to a life which is largely lived elsewhere, within the principal character’s experience, which we only ever fee we partially share.

On the face of it, Walker appears to be a rather conventional young man. He does not seem to be particularly ambitious. He is not assertive, and rarely takes the lead. He is not driven by urges to succeed, dominate or enrich himself. But he does not seem to form relationships easily, though neither does he obviously shun them. There always seems to be something in the way.

He does become interested in the personal histories of down-and-outs who sleep rough on the streets of the cities he inhabits. He is interested in them as individuals, concerned to know where they come from, and how they managed to finish up poor and destitute. He does find some common threads, and these form an essential element of the book’s plot.

Walker himself is a veteran of the final battles of World War II. He participated in the D-day landings and suffers regular flashbacks to the experience of being on a Normandy beach without cover and being shot at. He lost many comrades in battle and seems constantly to ask what gave him the right to survive. Perhaps this enduring trauma of war is what repeatedly denies him the self-confidence, self-awareness or perhaps ambition to participate in life, except as an almost detached observer. It is also the aspect of life that denies him a means to share the lives of those around him. He seems cocooned in a past that haunts him and controls the way he relates to others.

I have deliberately chosen not to mention The Long Take’s most obvious characteristic before describing its content, because questions of form can often dominate when they do not deserve to take pride of place. But now it is time to state that Robin Robertson’s novel, The Long Take, is written in verse, and this makes it rather unusual. Now as with all verse, the act of reading it is a rather different experience from reading prose. There is a necessary and inevitable need to pause, to absorb words, to observe lines and to identify the flow of rhythm. And it is via this use of verse that the author also more finally tunes the reader’s moments of complete concentration on and dedication to the text. What works extremely well in this scenario is the focus on the details of Walker’s experience, both in his current life and on those beaches during wartime, whose memories endure. The Long Take often tingles with a reality that can also sting. Walker’s regular flashbacks are also indicated typographically, appearing in italics to give them the stress that the reader thereafter subconsciously assumes.

What does not work well is the characterization associated with the books protagonists. If this were a film, then most characters other than Walker would probably appear rather as no more than cameos. But this is a small criticism, because the enhanced emotion offered by the verse more than compensates for any lack of descriptive context. The Long Take cannot be read quickly. It's a verse form demands the reader’s concentration and commitment. It is, however, a rewarding experience and eventually an intensely moving book, describing lives destroyed by the continued experience, as well as the historical reality and unseen consequences of war.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Milkman by Anna Burns



Milkman is a novel by Anna Burns. It won the Booker. It is a book. It's a book about a place, a place which is not named, but we know where it is because its divisions, borders, red lines, call them what you may, are currency in its social divide and international renown. It's a place that's part of somewhere else, or isn't, depending on your view of history, even though it's the present, its present that is the only relevant place to inhabit. There is another place over the border, and, yes, another one over the water, but in the past those from over there have often been this side of the ditch to leave their marks and then go home again, or not, which is at the root of the problems of this place with its border, its division, its divides, this side of the water. Like anywhere, there are people throughout to this place, but, unlike almost everywhere, they very rarely have names, or if they have them, they don’t want to use them, believing, clearly, that the name would incriminate, accuse, label, even identify in this situation where to be known always carries risks. If you are Milkman, or even a milkman, you can live with the label, possibly because it strikes fear into those who hear it, fear of association, or of reprisal, or of identification, or even of not getting your pinta. That's what the capital letter can do, or undo, if you don't have one, just one, at the start, making one a name and the other, well, a name, but not a name to identify, only a name to label. But then there are lots of labels this side of the water. There are labels above all others, which might determine where you live, might reveal what you believe, might dictate where you might walk, and where you might not, where you might drink, or buy chips, where the rest of the shop snubs you and you might even forget to pay, for your chips, of course, for you are always likely to pay, eventually, in other ways. It's these labels that make you walk faster through the ten-minute zone that divides the divisions, the road where you are being watched, counted, logged, photographed, recorded, identified as identifiable, in the future as well as in the present, which itself will become a permanent past if your name, still unspoken, receives the celebrity of appearing on someone’s file. Unless, of course, you are that Somebody McSomebody who is already known, already logged, already identified, probably already filed, in which case that Somebody McSomebody would probably not want to be seen, not want to venture into that ten-minute no-somebody's land, not anybody's land, that works like the border between over there and over here or the ditch between over here and over the water, keeping apart, keeping division. Unless, of course you are family, in which case you are known as brother or sister and by number, first, second, third etc., or you are known intergenerationally, like mama or papa or granddad, who might even still have a name, like one of your brothers, which is better not said in any case, being that it would be recognized, labelled, identified or merely chiseled into a headstone. That's always the risk, especially when your family is known to be sympathetic to causes unspoken in private but inevitably adopted in public, because the photographs, the records, the files prove you still live over there, on that side of the ten-minute zone that marks the division. And, when you have decided who you are or who you might become, should you agree to continue to see a milkman or other for the purpose of something other than acquiring milk, then you need to watch your back to make sure your maybe-boyfriend is not watching you while you are at your deception, which is not deception, because you're not trying to deceive. And then, in the end, you are at the end of the book, which is not really a book, but a train of thoughts, events, thoughts about events, and analyses, rationalizations of the irrational, all inside the head of an eighteen-year-old woman, who happens to come from one side or other of the divide, in the divided land, that's one side of the border and another side of the water ditch that separates it from over there. You have travelled the roads, lived the short lives, felt the threats, been taken to all the places the eighteen-year-old has deemed you will see, felt the confusion life has brought to her life, and experienced the lack of ending that inevitably applies to things that have no end. The only certainty, and this at least is certain, that this book, that actually might not be a book, but thought, experience and imagination, is a worthy Booker and arguably one of the greatest achievements in the history of things that generally are called books.



Saturday, August 29, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Sex on the Beach – sculptures by Antoni Miró in Altea


Two years ago, artist Antoni Miró exhibited a series of sculptures around Valencia’s old port district. Opinion at the time was divided about his work, with some convinced that these images in bronze outline were just too risqué for public view. Further south, on the Costa Blanca, almost all seafront bars offer a cocktail called Sex On The Beach, so surely these works can find a home among Altea’s beach promenade!

Antoni Miró is a prolific artist. He is based in a small town near Alcoi, inland from Alicante in Spain’s Communidad Valenciana. He works mainly at night and incessantly. He paints. He sculpts. He works on canvas, in ceramic, metal and with found objects. He works with computer graphics, and often mixes techniques and media in a single work. He produces images which often include contemporary themes, political ideas, social issues, images from film, history, conflict, popular culture, daily life and anything else that catches his eye. But these images are often transformed by colour, choice of media or context, often by simple juxtaposition, so the message is transformed, amplified and thus communicated in an intellectually challenging way, and always visually arresting.

These particular works on display in Altea are bronze sculptures. In some ways they are a set of positive and negative images because of the way they have been conceived and created. A simple way to visualize this idea is to imagine a sheet of paper having an image cut out. Then imagine working at the cut-out to add more detail. Next display the cut-out next to the original sheet which, of course, has a space the same shape as the image. Now repeat with a large bronze plate. Good luck.

And so for each positive cut-out shape, there is also a negative, rectangular sheet outlining the shaped space. The effect is doubly interesting. The positive images have detail incised, so they reveal something of their setting through themselves. The negatives, obviously, provide an image-shaped experience of their setting, an image-shaped window opening onto the environment that contains them. The results are captivating.

But what caused the divided opinions in Valencia was the works’ subject matter. For this Antoni Miró turned to images he found illustrated on ancient Greek pottery, and some of these are highly erotic. Hence my title, Sex on the Beach. The artist, meanwhile, likes to remind everyone that these images are based on originals that are 2,500 years old. In many respects, human beings possibly have not changed much in that time, and that may be the point. Indeed, some of the sculptures have been damaged by vandals. It seems that some people in Altea objected to the content of these images, an opinion that automatically endowed a few of those same individuals with the right to mangle some of the work. Lists of cocktails were not attacked, apparently. 

But there is much more to Antoni Miró’s work than mere controversy.  Works in other locations throughout the town illustrate the breadth of this artist’s vision. In the space in front of the Palau Altea, the town’s impressive concert venue, there are other positive-negative bronzes inspired by the paintings of Magritte, that might equally be Stan Laurel. There is an immovable bicycle parked on a plinth, its handlebars transformed into a single wing-like shape that suggests flight, while nearby its negative outline pierces its bronze plate, affording a bicycle-shaped view of the University of Alicante’s Fine Arts Faculty behind, an image that in itself does not normally provoke violent reaction.

Antoni Miró’s art sits firmly in the melting pot of contemporary Spanish art, though he himself might prefer the label Catalan, or Valencian. It approaches photorealism at times, but is suffused with surrealism, the comment of Goya and the almost explosive still-life of the baroque. But it is also intellectually rigorous, thought-provoking and vivid, often so much so that it provokes reaction. And this reaction is not about the art’s abstraction, it is a rejection of its realism. Now there is something novel.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the Booker prize for 2014, an award that was probably deserved. Much has been made of the author’s a relationship with his father, who was a prisoner of war in southeast Asia when the Japanese were building their railroad to the north using forced labor. Approaching the book as a tale of this war time experience would be a mistake, however. The personal experience of the 1940s is most certainly there, but it is by no means the totality of the book.

On the contrary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North presents several lives in all their contemporary complexity. The style is varied, sometimes disturbingly disconnected.  Often there are short sentences delivered like punches, and then long passages that seem to meditate around the perimeters of their interest, perhaps without seeming to engage in content. But don't take any of this as criticism (except, of course, in the literary sense): it's merely an attempt at observation and description. When a reader approaches a book, it's often useful to know what not to expect.

A character who remain central to the novel is an individual called Dorrigo Evans. We follow his life, his loves and, to some extent, his profession. Married to Ella, he loves Amy. And, for Dorrigo Evans, it seems that however fleeting the thought, however inconsequential the encounter, it is destined to be remembered, to be recorded and then recalled when least considered, if, and only if, Dorrigo Evans chooses to do so. Thus, life seems to aggregate around these characters to create a shell of allusion, association and chance, mixed with a fixer of self.

The wartime experiences are indeed central, however. They are not a blow-by-blow account of conflict, nor of the confinement which ensues after capture. There is something of the day-to-day suffering via forced labor and deprivation that these men suffered, some in the extreme, but more important is the continual challenge of survival, the daily challenge of reaching tomorrow. How these men cope with their privatization is central to Richard Flanagan's approach. And by the end of their captivity, everyone involved remains forever changed, forever scarred by the experience. Except for the legion who died, of course, for perhaps they were by then beyond suffering.

It's not a one-sided account, by the way. Richard Flanagan attempts to enter the minds of the captors, the Japanese soldiers who are responsible for creating the conditions that impose suffering on the captives. The attempt is not totally convincing, but the story of the Korean guard, conscripted to do Japan's dirty work, with the same level of choice as the captives he helps to torture and who is eventually tried for war crimes, is one of the most successful, powerful and memorable aspects of her book. And then there is the amputation episode… Realism rears its features here, and they are vivid.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not a novel that can be reviewed easily. It is complex, involved, subtle and involving. These are characters – particularly Dorrigo Evans – who seem utterly credible. We are interested in their lives, because they make mistakes, imagine themselves in the wrong while doing something right. This makes them as vulnerable as the real people they never quite become. But they get do on with it. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is a beautiful book.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Self-promotion or self-demotion? An emotional observation.

I read qu
ite a lot. I also try to review each book I read. Sometimes it’s a cursory mention of themes, settings and plot, just enough just to keep the memory alive. I find it helps, because with the help of these little clues I often find that some time after finishing a book I suddenly understand it better after re-reading the review and thereby appreciate more completely what it was trying to say. If, of course, the book had anything to say! 
Usually, my reviews of 500 to 1000 words, sometimes longer if I decide to include grab-quotes. I keep the reviews in a commonplace book that I started in August 1973, immediately after some of the most interesting years of my life when I was an undergraduate in London. These years are condemned to remain no more than memories, it seems, but the memories remain strong.

My reviews are rarely judgmental. I am not keen on star ratings, though some places where I share my reviews demand them. It seems to me the height of self-delusion to use a single, five-value scale to quantify eternal opinion on work that might be as diverse as a haiku or Ulysses. Equally facetious is the banal “I liked it” which, like all clichés, should be avoided like the plague.

What I try to do, sometimes, is to mimic the style of the book. This means that reviews of nineteenth century fiction are longer than those for books from the 20th century. The draft of a recent review of Middlemarch had so many subordinate clauses, asides and God‘s-eye-view observations that the first sentence reached 200 words. I remember it made the point I intended, but I ditched it.

So, with the decades of summary reviewing behind me, one would have thought that completing an author interview would be a trivial exercise. But no. I was just ten questions into the process when I realized I had spent over an hour at the task, and I had written very little indeed. The process suddenly took on an importance I had not envisaged developing when I started.

In the final analysis, the book that formed the basis of the interview, Eileen McHugh, a life remade, must speak for itself. The review is merely an aide memoire. The book must speak for itself. It will have to, because trying to express where it came from was a disturbingly cathartic experience which probably only skirted clarity. The interview is online at https://www.smashwords.com/interview/philipspires.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Scott-King's Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh

Scott-King's Modern Europe is a short, perhaps over-short novella by Evelyn Waugh. Written in 1946, it visits a fictitious part of Europe largely unknown to its determinedly English protagonist. In 1946 Scott-King had been classical master at Grantchester for twenty-five years, we are told in the tale's first sentence. This locks the book's principal character firmly in his place within the English class system, sketches his likely character, with its staid dedication to what has always been and remains "right", and posits him without doubt in the apolitical conservatism of an ultimately submissive establishment. It's the kind of England that used to believe that fog at Dover meant that Europe was cut off. Thus Waugh presents him to his undoubtedly sympathetic readers.

Out of a non-political blue comes a request from the little-known and less understood and now independent state of Neutralia that Scott-King attend a national celebration of a long-forgotten national poet called Bellorius. The writer died in 1646 and left a fifteen-hundred-line tract, written in Latin hexameters, of unrelenting tedium. It described a journey to an unknown new world island, where there subsisted a virtuous, chaste and reasonable community, Waugh tells us. This utopia was left forgotten and unread, until it appeared in a German edition in the twentieth century, a copy of which Scott-King picked up while on holiday some years ago. Thus the teacher of classics began a relationship with this European obscurity that led to this invitation to visit his homeland.

Scott-King's Modern Europe is so short that any more detail of its plot would undermine its reading. Suffice it to say that the international delegation is not what it seems. Things do not go to plan, or perhaps do, depending on your perspective on Neutralian politics, whose internecine struggles could not be further from anything associated with aloof Britishness, let alone it's higher class relative, Englishness. Life becomes unbearably complicated for the scrupulously fair Scott-King. He may, perish the possibility, suffer such ignominy as not having enough traveller's cheques left to cover his hotel bill!

As the farce develops, the celebration of Bellorius morphs into something decidedly more contemporary, whose limits become ever more blurred. Most of those involved are revealed, in some form or another, as frauds, except of course for the stolid and enduring Englishman of the title, who throughout remains the epitome of the innocent victim. If there is fault in the world, then it's all the fault of foreigners, those who live over there, those who speak the unintelligible languages that aren't English and live in those unbearable climates that have sunshine. They do not play fair in politics, and confuse responsibility with gain, All unthinkable at home, of course...

It all works out in the end, after a fashion. Let it be recorded here only that, true to the values of the English Public School where Scott-King has taught, it is a former pupil, ever loyal, that eventually extracts his former teacher from his troubles. But what is enduringly interesting about this little book is the depth of the metaphor that classical education presents. It is a culture in decline. Its vales are destined not to endure. Inevitably, the values enshrined in the assumption of this enduringly educated state are set themselves to disappear. The English surely are going to become like the untrustworthy, squabbling, divided Neutralians, and all the other foreigners with their unacceptable strange ways, who previously had only ever lived "over there".

Written at the end of the second world war, when perhaps mythically the British had stood alone, the book is perhaps the author's reflection on events that saw the division of Europe into opposing camps. The territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and essentially England within it, had been maintained. But those "over there" we're still foreign and thankfully they weren’t “over here”. Their values weren't our values, and yet their influence was all-pervading, or at least potentially so. Britain, and the English on the throne within it, we're still alone, still threatened. This is the culture that is suffused throughout Evelyn Waugh's little book and it is the assumption that makes its reading now at least poignant. It might even have been written a week ago, based on anyone's list of presumptions that surrounded the Brexit referendum. Everything that was not an English value is manifest in this non-culture of Neutralia, a nation that needs to invent heroes raised from within the mediocrity of its unrecognized and - even more reprehensible - unrecorded past. How non-English can one get?

Waugh's humour enlivens the story and his unapologetic Englishness almost renders himself as the principal character. It's is short enough to be read in an hour, but it's sentiment and message will resonate very strongly with contemporary readers. In Britain's current political context, Scott-King's Modern Europe is a little book with a big message.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Children's Book by AS Byatt

The Children's Book by AS Byatt is a vast, almost rambling novel about several families and multiple lives. It is the kind of novel where a review must concentrate on the context and setting and leave out any detail, for there is far too much of that to do any of it justice. The detail is so extensive that to include anything in particular would elevate it above its relevance in the overall scenario. In the end it all hangs together beautifully and the contrasting, yet similar lives of its characters serve to illustrate the social mores and concerns of its setting. Multiple characters live through more than twenty years of their lives and descriptions of specific events happen on every page. No review could do justice to any part of this veritable tangle of history and stories. And, more than that, it is the detail of these events and interrelationships that form the very currency of this work. What happens, and to whom is happens is important and should not be revealed.

But the setting and the context are important and, since these are part of a history we all share, then there is no reason not to set them out in some detail. It is the context, both cultural and political, that this shared history inhabits that informs what we understand when we read a novel as complex and profound as this.

We begin in the mid-eighteen-nineties. We are generally among the professional upper middle classes and bi-locate between London and Kent, with much more happening out of the city. But it is the then modern Victoria and Albert Museum where the tale begins with the discovery of a lad called Philip camping out in the already dusty cellars, where the already massive collection of objects that cannot be displayed are in storage. Philip seems to have talent, but then he is a working-class lad from the Potteries, so whatever his abilities he is unlikely to be taken seriously. He has run away from a poor home and the bowels of the museum have become a rough home. Until he is discovered. Luckily, he is embraced by people who would like to help.

Many families inhabit this tale, but crucially it is a woman called Olive who repeatedly takes centre stage. She is a writer and regularly invents stories for her children. Ostensibly, these are the children's stories of the title but, as the book progresses, we realise that the meat of the novel is the real-life stories that the young people in this assemblage of families enact. As ever, reality proves to be far more immediate and unpredictable than imagination, which tends to resort to received worlds that can only exist in an abstract or ideal form or reconstruct the real thing via fantasy. And it is fantasy that is so often used to obscure the raw and often inadmissible truth of real lives.

When Olive writes these stories, her imagined worlds fit the fashions of the time. And in the 1890s there is much of human life that is only ever discussed euphemistically, despite its being lived in the flesh. Consequences are all around but admitting their existence in any explicit way is rarely possible. They exist only in allusion, even when reality pokes its nose into the bubble. This particular late Victorian world is that of a liberal middle class, gently socialist of the Fabian variety, but also imbued with the conservatism of their social class and their upbringing. One really does not want to maltreat the lower classes, but really one does get such little opportunity to demonstrate one's true values. One is conscious, of course, of the obvious difference in standards of dress, with our polite society ever conscious of material, colour, accessory, decoration and ensemble. And, of course, it's never dirty... but one must not judge. One must reform.

But this is also a world where women have become hungry for emancipation. At the start of this shared history that spans over twenty years, there are murmurings of desired independence, imaginings of opportunity, dreams of fulfillment outside the home, the bed and the cradle. The link between the latter two would only be made in the imagination, of course. Except in reality, which only rarely obtrudes into discourse, there are skeletons in cupboards, past excesses that have been denied, encounters that perhaps have been intimated only in the imagination. But these people are not prepared for the emotions they feel, nor the natural drives that overtake them. They succumb, knowing they should not, and then invent fiction and euphemism to explain away the reality that just occasionally arrests them.

A greater reality is about to absorb them all, however. By the end of The Children's Story, there have been suffragettes and suffragists, protest, sabotage, imprisonment and death, all in furtherance of a cause soon to be won. Ironically, it was perhaps World War One, which also grinds to its grim conclusion before the end the novel, that brings so much death to the generation of the children at the start of the book, that guarantees these women will receive their emancipation, if only to fill a labor shortage.

The majority of The Children's Book describes what might be termed a family saga involving multiple families either side of an Anglo-German relationship. The book concerns itself with identity, gender politics and roles, denied sexuality and eventually passionate reality. There are helpings of Fabian socialism, arts and crafts and little touches of class difference. There is always sexual repression married to moments of excess, with its physical consequences, both social and personal. These are characters who really do populate the story, and thus make the story in their own terms. None of these people act out events just so that they can be listed in the book's experience.

But at the same time, these people remain distant. They never really let out their feelings, except when they overstate them. Thus, they are of the era that made them. and we become convinced of their reality, their credibility and their dilemmas.

The Children's Book is perhaps a little difficult to start. It introduces many characters and settings in its early chapters. But we do get to know these people and the process is both gradual and convincing. By the end of the work, beyond the end of World War One, their lives have been transformed, though probably not in any way that their safe attitudes at the start might have imagined. The Children's Book is not a historical novel. It is not a family saga. It is not a love story or a tragedy. It aspires to no genre. Neither, it must be stressed, is it general fiction, whatever that might be. It is a novel that takes its reader into a different time, a different environment and a different set of social values. And a truly great novel, because, by the end, we not only feel we have visited different places, but also we have lived in them.  




Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan

The Naples Riviera by Herbert M Vaughan is a travel book published in 1908. I read it recently during a trip to Naples, itself. When using old guide books in contemporary trips, it can happen that the traveler finds a must-see site has been demolished in the intervening years, but nowadays a cursory check via a search engine can avoid such embarrassment. But what can be gleaned from reading what are now historical accounts of travel is a sense of perspective that is almost always missing from much tourist literature. Yes, the historical fact is always available, but its interpretation is always a variable, and it is this variability that immediately enriches an experience of travel.
Vaughan describes Naples, Amalfi, Sorrento, Capri, Ischia and the nearby bays as seen at the start of the twentieth century. His account indicates that these descriptions were contemporary, but also that they not being experienced for the first time. This is clearly an experienced traveler. It is interesting to note that he regularly advises that certain areas have become overpopulated with foreigners, or regularly crowded with tourists, or more likely to serve an English Sunday lunch than any local speciality. Gone, perhaps, are the barefoot luggage carriers who are generally women and who apparently queue up near the ferry hoping to earn a living by carrying tourists’ suitcases up the hill on their heads. Gone also, perhaps, are the traditional dances, such as the tarantella, that Vaughan claims the locals strike up spontaneously at any time of day and in almost any place.
A surprising observation comes early in the text, when the author refers to the city of Naples, itself, as having been largely rebuilt, and thus containing predominantly modern buildings. The author immediately reveals his preference for a particular period of the city’s history, a preference that looks down on the baroque modernization of Gothic spaces, perhaps questioning even that the Renaissance should ever have descended into mannerism.
There is mild surprise when the author lists the number of places in the Campania region where malaria is either still endemic or was endemic until just before the account was written. Vaughan then discusses the possible causes of the disease. A modern reader, when confronted with the apparent contradictions of contemporary mores, is perhaps gently surprised. When confronted with the author’s incredulity at the idea of malaria being spread by mosquitoes, one approaches the state of being flabbergasted. But the modern search engine can again come into its own to remind the contemporary traveler that it was less than a decade before the writing of Vaughan’s book that the causational link had been confirmed. One lives and one learns.
Sitting in the narrow and sometimes hectic overcrowding of the matrix of the Spanish quarter near Via Toledo, the contemporary traveler is often confronted with the rasping noise and the odour of unburnt two-stroke as motorbikes speed past on what seemed to be collision courses, both with one another and pedestrians alike. The largely unhelmeted riders remind one of the fact that Naples was a lucrative market for diagonally striped T-shirts when the wearing of seat belts in cars became compulsory. One is also minded to speculate what the experience of Vaughan in the streets might have been without the noise of the internal combustion engine and the smell of unburnt fuel. Vaughan of course reminds us that before two wheels there were four legs and that these modes of transport used to leave different evidence of their passing, which also had effects on the nose.
When Vaughan visits Pompeii and Herculaneum, his descriptions are lyrical and vivid. But again the contemporary traveler realizes that it that the experience of these places in the early twentieth century was significantly much less than it is now, since much of the excavation and archaeological work has been done in the intervening century. Anyone who, like Vaughan, wants to contemplate what life might have been like in these ancient Roman towns with their single room shops and narrow streets need only pause for a while in Naples old town or in the Spanish quarter, where, apart from the motorbikes, life probably looks pretty similar to what might have been transacted along those ancient streets. From a distance the city even looks red and yellow, the same colors the decorated most of the dwellings in the two ruined cities.
Vaughan’s description of Naples Riviera comes across as surprisingly modern. It confirms that whenever and wherever we travel it is the experience that matters, the here and now, and crucially how that changes us, rather than confirms what we expected or anticipated when we decided to go there. And so it is both refreshing and enlightening to share another visitor’s insight from a different time as we explore a new any new experience of travel.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson seems to explore the identity conferred on an individual via family. "Seems to" is important here, because what exactly might constitute family for Gretel, the novel's principal character, is always a negotiable point. For many of us, the concept of family can be clearly defined. Its reality is often identifiable, possibly supportive, even dependable. But for others a family can be a site of struggle, a source of conflict, an indefinable and disquieting lack of trust. In either of these extremes, or indeed anywhere else on the spectrum that links them, a child is his or her own individual, an individual that can react against or absorb into whatever form a family might take. Equally, that individual can adopt the family norms, be they for eventual good or ill. Everything Under examines some of these possibilities from Gretel's point of view, Gretel the daughter of a mother she increasingly seems not to know and has not met for many years.
Gretel seems to live a simple, dedicated and ordered life, with perhaps more than an element of self-imposed isolation. She is a lexicographer, examining the accuracy and scope of dictionary entries. Words thus matter to her. They are her bread and butter. Though she has not seen her mother since she was sixteen, she still has vivid memories of words they shared, words her mother invented to label things otherwise indescribable. As an adult, Gretel finds her world turned upside down by the reappearance of a woman she probably only ever partially knew, but whose own identity has now been transformed by age. Communication is hit and miss, sometimes lucid, sometimes mythical, sometimes disconnected. Gretel, however, decides to relive her past via the family life she can either remember or reconstruct, reliably or otherwise via conversation and reflection with her mother.
And that life was indeed somewhat unconventional. She and her mother lived on a boat that was moored on a river. The waters were, it seems, always murky. Gretel never really knew her father, and one of the areas she tries to uncover via her partial engagement with her mother is nothing less than the truth about her own beginnings. The water on which the family boat floated stayed murky throughout Gretel's childhood, and, it seems, has not cleared since then.
Complicating the scene is the fact that she and her mother used to communicate via code words, sounds they themselves invented to describe the unknowns, the lurking dangers or merely the otherwise unspeakable things that can surface to threaten these lives lived in a microcosm of their own invention. There is apparently much to uncover, and not all of it is accessible. And when this private language, these codes for the unmentionable, invade either a mother's or a daughter's memory, they are used to hide something difficult, to obfuscate, as if to ensure their meaning remains unknown, unacknowledged.
Characters alternate between the present and memories of a limited family life on their moored boat. There are demons to confront and assumptions to deconstruct. The water, if anything, becomes murkier when stirred. And if there is a criticism of this forensic reconstruction of a shared but only partially remembered past, then it lies in its tendency to over-complicate. It is perhaps minor point, but one might have expected Gretel, with her professional desire for accuracy in everything to do with words, not to tolerate such obfuscation.
Mother and daughter's invented vocabulary seems, however, to extend to only a few words. This is hardly the "language" we are told they shared. The words reappear in different contexts to indicate apparently different things. Unpicking how these labels have been applied to their shared experience forms a significant element of plot. But again, though much is made of these few words, they hardly constitute the "invented language" of the book's preamble.
Everything Under thus evolves into a complex, complicated and inevitably confused uncovering of this relationship between mother and daughter. Truths are revealed and unconsciously absorbed detail is newly remembered to add context. Throughout, however, we feel that, in essence, things were probably a little simpler than each character's desire to speculate might allow. In some ways this is the book's strength, since Everything Under is a tangle of memories, a tangle of relationships and possibly an undergrowth of old stems that even the participants have neglected to prune.
Everything Under is a challenging read around what is essentially a simple idea. But, when reality finally knocks on the door and these characters find they must own up to the detail of their family life, there are revelations and surprises which, paradoxically, change nothing. Perhaps many families are like that.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Reviewing books that one has not enjoyed is a pointless activity. Better just to put them on the shelf and forget them. Perhaps a second exposure, some years hence, might reveal what first impressions missed. Likes and dislikes, in any case, are wholly subjective, usually identifying something internal to the reviewer: only rarely do they relate to anything of substance in the object of the review. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry thus presents a problem. The book came with the strongest of recommendations alongside published reviews that heaped praise. And the book has many positive qualities. It is set in Victorian England and in several ways, it is highly evocative. There is a formality of style, a definite floridity in his language. These people exude politeness and decorum. They even write letters to one another, letters that are reproduced in full between the chapters that bi-locate between London and the Essex coast.
The scenario involves Cora, a recently widowed Londoner, her companion Martha and a child Francis, who, we are told, has significant problems with behaviour. The loss of a husband is felt deeply, and a sojourn by the sea, the Blackwater estuary in Essex being the place chosen, is prescribed. In this small town there are people who live from the sea, people who do rural things, and a vicar, plus his wife and some surviving children. The place also has a secret, though apparently not so secret, myth of a great sea creature, a sea serpent or winged dragon that appears irregularly to wreak havoc on its victims. And it is evidence of this beast that forms the prelude to the tale, evidence that is quietly forgotten for several chapters.
The Essex Serpent also presents aspects of Victorian life as substance in its story. There is disease, with early death, infant mortality and consumption, their combination making a point about the fragility of life. There is the barbarity, by today's standards, of medical treatment. There is violence on the streets of London and severe punishment for those who transgress the law. There is destitution and homelessness, though perhaps not in the direct experience of these characters, but manifest in their enlightened attitudes towards charity. And, within these horizons, relationships develop, characters ail, people disappear in mysterious circumstances and, throughout, there is the expectant foreboding that the Essex serpent casts over anything that cannot be fully explained. One is never in any doubt, however, that everything will eventually be explained.
So where, given the start of this review, are the problems? Let's start at the beginning. Before we meet any of the characters, we are presented with an episode that suggests the book will be primarily concerned with the monster the locals believe inhabits the waters of their Essex estuary. But, given that the power of the serpent's presence is used throughout the text more to signify a threat and create tension than make actual appearance, then this introduction is misplaced.
Secondly, too often the characters appear only when they are needed to drive a plot. The much-discussed behavior problems of the boy Francis hardly seem to figure in his mother's consciousness until the plot requires his action. Then, having exhibited no particular unpredictability thus far, he conveniently delivers when required.
Thirdly, the letters that these characters write to one another seem to be included as plot devices rather than as intended communication. They do not appear, despite the different signatures, to be written in different styles. They contain little small talk and thus do not seem to be letters at all.
Fourth, it appears that these characters are in fact modern people with modern sensibilities, cast in an era where they can highlight cultural and attitudinal differences that might surprise the reader. But the characters, themselves, hardly reflect the assumptions they would be expected to espouse.   No-one is racist, there is no antisemitism and the poor tend to be judged deservingly. These people remark on things about the society that, if they had contemporary Victorian sympathies, they would hardly notice
Fifth, and possibly I am wrong here, there seem to be some factual errors in the book. On a couple of occasions, these people, who give such obvious import to flowers, trees, vegetation and wildlife, make clear errors about what they have seen. At one point a character muses on something they simply cannot have experienced, though the fault here lies in technology, not nature. I could back up these assertions with the detail, but I have no desire to undermine the experience of potential readers of a book with details that some other reader might not notice or choose to ignore. For me, personally, these obvious errors undermined the solidity of the scenario and rendered the characters less than credible.
So for me, this was a very, very difficult read. I did finish the book. It had some things to offer. Please read it and make up your own mind.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Spanish Brass and Zélia Rocha


There has not been much opportunity to review arts events of late. I am sure I don’t have to explain why. But over the last few weeks there have been attempts to ease the restrictions of earlier in the year and a number of venues have offered events, albeit with audiences wearing masks and seated according to ongoing rules of social distancing. This restricted the recent annual film festival in L’Alfas del Pi to exclude usual venues such as the wonderfully independent Cinema Roma. The festival did happen however, using the spaces provided by Casa Cultura and outside paved areas.

One venue where social distancing is rarely an issue is the Klein-Schreuder sculpture garden. The current exhibition features works by Zélia Rocha, assemblies of iron and steel, largely reimagined engine components and re-created scrap. The forms represented are largely literal, but the construction is utterly abstract. Part of the joy is pausing before each work to identify what each component used to do during its working life and then reflect on how this contrasts with its current setting. The garden’s opening times are on its website.

And then last night, Altea hosted the second of its series of concerts Música a Boqueta Nit, in the outdoor auditorium at la Plaça de l’Aigua, a venue that again is easily to socially distance. New rules, new ages, need new compound verbs, it seems.

The group Spanish Brass, a brass quintet described by no less than Christian Lindburg as one of the best in the world, presented its program and they played in all for about ninety minutes without an interval. In the open air, even a brass quintet needs to be amplified, but a group such as Spanish Brass are used to the challenge and the sound proved more than acceptable to even the most discriminating ear. Amplified, of course, it lacked the character of reverberation, but outdoors there is none of that anyway.

The program was varied and, for this outdoor summer evening, largely light, but expertly delivered. It included part of an orchestral suite by Johan Sebastian Bach, Oblivion and Libertango by Astor Piazzolla, and a medley of songs made famous by Edith Piaf. The last work was apt, since on the way to the concert, it seemed that about half of the cars in Altea had arrived from France.

Introductions to the music hereabouts are almost always delivered in a mixture of languages, and last night Spanish Brass chose three, English, Castellano and Valenciano, so though the French missed out on the words, they made up lost ground in the music.

Personally, the high point of the evening was the concerto for wind quintet by Salvador Brotons. The composer is a teacher of brass instruments in Barcelona’s conservatory and this piece was commissioned from him by Spanish Brass for the 2014 Alzira festival. It may not be common knowledge outside Spain that this eastern part of the country is known for the extent and quality of its bands. These are not the brass bands that used to be so prevalent in the north of England before the community and culture that spawned them was excised. These have the character of a symphonic band, with a mix of brass and woodwinds, mouthpieces and reeds that often march through towns accompanied by a set of timpani on wheels. The overall standard of musicality in these groups, at least one in every town, no matter what size, is so high that they can and often do play rich and varied material.
As a result, there exists a corpus of composers for band throughout Catalunya and Valencia who attempt far more than pop cliché. And so to the Brass Quintet Concerto of Salvador Brotons. The first movement is rhythmically challenging, with its complex and broken, but always punchy lines, a second movement that reminds of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and the finale that impresses via its neoclassicism and Hindemith-like astringency.

It is refreshing to hear real music performed again. It’s ability to surprise via the new and genuinely original is unique, and the rootedness of this new experience in everything that has gone before has to be heard to be understood, or appreciated, in that essential order.



Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

Simplicity is a very complex concept. ‘Keep it simple’ is good advice, but not if its result is a dumbing down of content or a dilution of ideas towards the patronizingly inane. Simplicity, when it indicates an elegant and succinct portrayal of otherwise complex material, is what writers often seek, but rarely achieve. For some truly great artists the quality is achieved apparently without effort. This is the quality and the power of illusion.
An impressive example of this complexity of the apparently simple can be found in The Red Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. So much fiction takes the form of a biography that examples need not be listed. These life stories take many forms, from chronological sequence to end-of-life recollection, from jumbled memories to self-analysis. Very few would follow the highly original form of Orhan Pamuk’s novel and, crucially, the reader of this book will not be aware of its experimental originality until the end, perhaps even some time after finishing the book.

The Red Haired Woman is in the three distinct parts. The novel’s principal character is called Cem, though the narrative is well developed before we are aware of any name. In the first part, Cem is still at school. His impoverished family cannot raise the cash to enable the lad to attend a crammer to assist his studies, so he takes a holiday job labouring for a well digger. We are aware, though never explicitly, that there are complexities in these familial relationships. We are in Istanbul, where we habitually find Orhan Pamuk, but thirty years ago when the city had not sprawled to its current extent and perhaps where certain things were not discussed openly.

Mahmut, master of his trade, is the well digger. He and his two helpers begin to work on sloping ground in Őngőren which, at the time, is a sleepy little place beyond the city limits, where everyone knows everyone else's business and where modernization is just on the horizon. The well diggers go about their task during the day and retire to a bar in town most evenings. There is a theatre group in the town, and one of its members is a thirty-something woman with red hair. Cem becomes obsessed with her beauty and, as often is the case in Orhan Pamuk’s fiction, the sensation becomes all-consuming for this young and impressionable man. Stubbornly, the well excavation does not yield its goal and Cem extends his stay in Őngőren. Perhaps predictably, encounters with the red-haired woman do much to educate the young man. Eventually the labourer leaves the project in strange circumstances before it is finished to return home to Istanbul, leaving behind in Őngőren things that will continue to haunt him.
In part two of The Red Head Woman, we meet Cem again, but now he is an adult, university trained - so the crammer the labouring paid for did at least some good - and on the way to becoming a rich property developer, a significant but perhaps not major force in Istanbul’s modernisation. He is aware of much that he left behind in Őngőren, since the summer of well digging has left many indelible memories. These are brought into sharp focus when a contract to redevelop parts of the area comes across his desk and Cem decides to pursue the project. He thus needs to re-visit to the area and re-tread the only partially recognizable paths he trod during that personally influential summer some three decades previously. Some of the characters he knew those years ago are still around. Some of the issues that motivated dissent are still in focus.

Part three of the book is written after Cem's involvement with Őngőren has concluded. It is in this section that we hear a different perspective on Cem’s life and to reveal its detail in a review would devalue the impact of the book. Suffice it to say that from this different perspective, Cem's actions and memories take on a wholly different character. We knew all along that there was potential for consequences, but Cem never thought to find out what might have happened. But reality catches up, and resentment grows when it is ignored. All experience is particular, and we must all be aware that individual perspectives are nothing more than that, individual. It is the consequences that are shared.
But Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman is much more than an individual fictional life. The well diggers, visiting the bar in Őngőren, chat about many things. Repeatedly, two stories are examined from different viewpoints. Oedipus, a man condemned to murder his father and marry his mother, is one. A perspective the well diggers explore is that Oedipus is not aware of the curse that directs his life, and that even when he consciously tries to avoid it shackles, the power of fate further condemns him to its confines. The second story, from the Shahmaneh, features Sohrab and Rostam. Almost counterbalancing Oedipus, this story has a father kill his son. And it is these themes, predetermination, fate, the paternal, maternal and filial, and then eventually powerlessness that form an intellectual backbone in the work. Cem the property developer is set to modernize the place that did so much to influence his personality, his outlook on life and his future. But the place will reassert itself in his life in a different, wholly unpredicted way that Cem, himself, created, but can neither influence nor control. The patricide and the filicide of the stories that obsessed Cem in his youth eventually fight it out in this brilliant book.

The Red Haired Woman, this short, accessible and apparently simple novel thus develops intellectual and philosophical dimensions, blended with its constant undercurrent of political identity and economic change. Only at the end does the reader become fully aware of the complexity of its themes, and how expertly Orhan Pamuk blends these apparently disparate ideas into a biographical whole called Cem, the principal character through which we experience an entire view of the world. And yet the reading of this book, start to finish, is always simple. The style is transparent and the reality is almost tangible. It is both personal and general, mundane and ontological, reassuringly simple and yet emotionally tangled and challenging. It is a perfect example of how simplicity is it the heart of the complex. Or was that the other way around?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Elizabeth – The Forgotten Years by John Guy

Myths are best served exploded, otherwise they can over-inflate and thus hide the substance of any dish. And if that dish be the national consciousness or identity of a nation, then such over-egging must be avoided, lest it become the
over-elaborated norm.

In recent times the Tudors have become entertainment currency, and not only in British media. From television series to historical novels to feature films, we have seen a plethora of offerings, mainly stories of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, it has to be said. These often degenerate into costume dramas or whodunits of political intrigue, where accuracy is smoothed out of the history to create the kind of simplistic cliché of plot that mass markets are deemed to demand. “Based on a true story”, that overworked and internally contradictory byline, is now so overworked that it would be better omitted. “Fabricated around historical names” would be better. And though there is nothing wrong with fiction, since it often allows interpretations that challenge received wisdom, there are real difficulties when that fiction is transferred into myth whose acceptance becomes so widespread that it may not be challenged. It could be argued that connotations associated with terms such as Good Queen Bess, Golden Age or even simply Elizabethan are in danger of relying more on fiction than fact. Or perhaps these are nostalgic labels for contemporary ideal states that are thought to be lacking in our own times.

And so what an absolute delight it is to come upon a book such as Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years by John Guy. This is a book that really is based on true stories, since this academic historian of Clare College, Cambridge references and describes any sources that the reader may need to back up any point. Timescales are not stretched, statement is supported by facts and mystery is only allowed to obscure fact when evidence does not exist.

The forgotten years of John Guy’s title refer to the latter part of Elizabeth's reign. The earlier years, before the Armada in 1588 are those that form the backdrop for most of the fictions, with their multiple plots, proposals, match-makings and conspiracies. These later years were characterized by war, economic difficulties and political intrigue. They were perhaps dominated by considerations of succession, since Elizabeth, of course, had no heir. It is worth noting here, however, that John Guy, by virtue of a discursive style that deals with issues rather than a mixture of events arranged chronologically, does offer as context much background material relating to the years before 1588. This picture that is purportedly a selective encounter with the later years of Elizabeth's reign thus contains much rounded and detailed description of her entire reign.

John Guy states several assumptions that must guide our understanding of the period. In the sixteenth century, he says, status did not trump gender. Elizabeth was a woman, and that meant that many of the males at court had little or no respect for her apart from their recognition of her birthright. And, because her mother was Anne Boleyn, whom her father married after his denied divorce, even that was questioned by many, especially those of the old faith, who would also have wanted to do more than merely undermine this Protestant queen. The author, incidentally, is not implying that gender issues are or were different in other centuries. As a professional historian, he is simply defining the scope of relevance that is to be ascribed to his comment. Secondly, because Elizabeth was a single woman, the issue of succession had to dominate her reign. In the earlier years this meant various scrambles to find her a husband in the hope that a male heir might materialize. But later on, in the period that John Guy's book covers, Elizabeth was too old to bear children anyway. Discussion on succession, therefore, shifted from matchmaking into more strategic and political territory.

In Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years, the queen is portrayed as a fundamentally medieval monarch. She saw herself as descended from God, the assured kin of all others who shared this enthroned proximity to the Almighty. Hence, she could not bring herself to sign the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, believing that a decision to kill a royal by anyone would legitimize the practice, and who then might be next to get it in the neck? And since this by definition was a direct attack on God, it also carried damnation as a consequence. Hence Elizabeth's duplicity in letting it be known she wanted Mary disposed of whilst at the same time denying any responsibility for the act, thus requiring the person who enacted her wishes to be hauled up for treason. These medieval royals were above reason, it seems, as well as above the law. And messengers, it seems, have always been fair game.

This unwillingness to sign a death warrant was not a weakness that affected Elizabeth very often. It seems that the mere whiff of a plot or conspiracy quickly resulted in all smells being masked by the odor of fresh ink forming her signature on an invitation to the Tower. John Guy’s book regularly takes us to the gallows with these condemned people - usually men, of course - and offers detail of their fate. A particularly memorable sentence, specifically suggested by the queen, had one condemned man hanged for just one swing of the rope, so he could then be cut down and, still alive and still conscious, witness his own guts and beating heart being placed on the ground beside him. In an age that still believed in the resurrection of the mortal body, these treasonous felons had to be dismembered and their parts separated to ensure they would never have their souls saved. It may have been God’s will, but it certainly was that of His reigning representative on earth.

This Good Queen Bess, incidentally, was in the habit of handing down similar fates quite regularly. She also refused to pay salaries to soldiers and sailors who fought for her, dressed herself in finery while her war wounded received no assistance or pension and were forced to sleep rough. She turned two blind eyes to disease and epidemic that ravaged her forces and population. Elizabeth the patriotic hero also and perhaps duplicitously sued for peace with Spain, offering Philip II near surrender terms if she and he could agree to carve up the economic interests between them.

She handed out monopolies to her courtiers and lobbyists in exchange for a cut of the earnings. A real strength of John Guy’s book is the insistence on translating Elizabethan era values into present day terms. The resulting multiplication by a thousand brings into sharp focus the extent to which national finances were carved up by elites. While parsimonious when others were due to receive, Elizabeth for herself demanded only the finest and most expensive treatment. It was, after all, her Right.

Elizabeth also countenanced an English economy that raised theft on the high seas to a strategic goal. And her courtiers treated the expeditions as capitalist enterprises, with ministers and the like taking shares in the ventures in exchange for a share of the swag. And much of this would be stolen before it was declared or as it was being landed by handlers or mere thieves who clearly learned their morals and behavior from the so-called betters. The market was free, apparently, but those who operated it were always at risk of incarceration.

Thus, Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years will be a complete eye-opener for anyone who has absorbed popular culture’s portrayal of this age. John Guy’s book identifies the very human traits displayed by this Godly queen and posits them absurdly alongside the attitude of her contemporaries that she was a mere worthless woman.

There are not many figures in John Guy’s wonderful book who come out unscathed, either in reputation or body. Neither does he set out to destroy anyone’s reputation. As an historian, he presents evidence, assesses it and then offers an informed and balanced opinion. This, however, is healthy, for in the current climate populism is too often allowed to merge its own version of history into its message. It does so to achieve some control of a contemporary agenda via the creation of myth, and Tudor melodramas are not exceptions to this rule. Elizabeth - The Forgotten Years demands we remember our real past accurately in all its folly, and in so doing explode many dangerous myths.