Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


A book started with much excitement and anticipation was finished with a whimper of "Why did he bother?"
We have Axl and Beatrice, a devoted elderly couple, ancient Britons who have lived amongst Saxons for almost as long as they can remember, decide to set off to search for a long-lost son who lives they know not where. Somehow, they will find him. Along the way they encounter Sir Gawain of the Green Knight, various young people, several older people and a few religious types. Sword-wielding warriors play their part, as do various ogres, pixies and a dragon. One monster turns out to be a dog.  A dog? With how many heads, how many eyes, and does it live up a donkey's arse?
Sorry to sound cynical, but if this book is really about the loving relation ship between the elderly couple, or indeed something related to the inevitable passing of time, then it is doubly unsuccessful. Rarely have I been so disappointed by a book from an author who can actually write.
Perhaps Isiguro suffered from writer's block, and this was his way of overcoming the problem. His wife, apparently, recommended the first draft for the bin. A woman of taste. Fantasy, it seems to me, is always an excuse for lack of imagination. How many legs shall the beast have? And just how I'll-defined do you want the threat? How many clichés can you take?
It is only my opinion. But it was a true waste of time.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Family Album by Penelope Lively.

One comment that is often made about many writers - usually women - is that all too often the material does not venture beyond the garden gate. Domesticity rules, reigns and all too often stifles. Except, of course, when it falls into the grasp of a truly expert writer, when these self-imposed limits open up a veritable universe of experience.

In Family Album, Penelope Lively often gets far beyond the garden gate, but strangely, she convinces us that in the minds of her characters, that limit is a permanent horizon, the crossing of which will never be possible. The garden gate in question gives us open access to Allersmead, a sprawling three story Victorian middle class dwelling, perfect for a large family with live-in staff. And, on opening the front door to be greeted by the ubiquitous smell of fine family cooking, it is this arrangement that we encounter. Charles, aloof, bookish, perhaps a snob and utterly dedicated to the pursuit of pseudo-academic, self-defined literary explorations in his study, is married to Alison, the wife and mother. They have uncountable children -  is it five, is it six? - and also host a Scandinavian maid-cum-nanny-cum-home-help-cum-whatever-else, as we will learn.

Allersmead, the Victorian pile, is witness to the myriad of events, games, meals, relationships, disputes, treaties, failures, successes and accommodations that family life inevitably entails. Penelope Lively seems not to claim that these people are anything special, though they clearly are. By virtue of their individuality and personality, they are unique, both as individuals and as a family. They are nothing special. But then everything about them is special. Just how does Charles manage to keep writing books that sell? What is he actually doing behind that closed sturdy door? And what do the children get up to when they disappear to play in the cellar? And from where does Alison draw her inspiration for all those delectable table treats? It is, perhaps, a mystery.

Do not expect a plot. There is none. But who needs a plot when lives are drawn as perfectly as this? The lives themselves, the family life indeed as a character in its own right become the plot. We are drawn in as a guest and observer, possibly even participant. And it is the accuracy, poignancy and precision of observation and expression at which we marvel. This is writing of the utmost beauty and skill. Every word seems crafted to supply a detail that would be lacking in a thousand pictures. Genius at work.
At least that's how Charles might see it. Ingrid, the Scandinavian maid, moves out for a while and family hiatus ensues. She returns and lives are picked up where they were left off. Except that perhaps some family members have picked up more than they knew. Lives diverge. Children grow up  and start to assert their individuality, their personal priorities. Where will it lead than? And will it be where they wanted to go. Only time will tell.

Family Album is one of the most beautiful, most moving books it is possible to imagine. Be drawn along with these lives, and there will be no consequences, for there perhaps never are. We become what we are, we aspire to what we imagine, and we achieve precisely what we achieve. Our goal is to be human, though not all of us achieves that particular end. We err. We lie, perhaps. We deceive, do we? In Penelope Lively's Family Album we will find all the snapshots, all the pictures that tell the story, but it's the words that count, so few, saying so much, each one worth a thousand pictures.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a deceptively complex book. The deception is borne of its author's skill to render complexity in a subtle, sensitive and simple way. Simplicity comes from the focus on a small group of families who interact in many of the ways acquaintances do. This is small town Switzerland, where perhaps very little of the unexpected ever arises. Complexity arises, however, from the ubiquity of sexual relations, passing lives, an approaching world war, with its persecution of Jews and a need to adopt neutrality.

The neutrality arises from the book's setting, which is Switzerland. But even in a land of clockwork, nothing is straightforward or predictable. Even time is not linear. When we start, we encounter Gustav and Anton, two young friends forging a relationship together. Their families are also close. They go on holiday together. The boys form a bond.

Then some years earlier, we encounter Gustav's mother, Emilie, as a teenager, still a maiden as Rose Tremain describes her, at a festival in her home town of Matzingen. It's an ordinary place, between the Jura and the Alps, not mountainous, not clockwork-pretty, just local. Both local and personal considerations fill the consciousness of Emilie, who instinctively knows the time is right. Erich was in the police and she was much arrested. A marriage ensues, and there are children. But there is little that is conventional about the eventual birth of Emilie’s son, the Gustav of the book's title. Rose Tremain would surely point out that in life little is ever predictable.

The Gustav Sonata is a book whose plot consists of the substance of people's lives. Any review that describes their relationships is pure spoiler. Even a list of elements might come too close to detail best left to the reading. But suffice it to say that there are multiple elements of interrelation between the families we meet in the book. Erich has a superior in the police. The boss has a wife. The Second World War turns everything upside down. Jews need to escape from neighboring countries. Emilie and Erich's close friends are Jewish. They have a son called Anton. Anton and Gustav are friends.

There is insubordination, sexual dalliance, splits and reformations.  There is time spent back at home with mother. Disgrace appears in its ugliest form, and destruction ensues. Ambition drives achievement, but careers never quite materialize.

The Gustav Sonata is a beautiful book because its characters come to life. Their experiences are particular, but always credible. They almost tell one another what they want, but gaps will inevitably widen, and misunderstandings, deceptions and outright lies breed in the void.

What is so refreshing about this book is that none of these people ever achieve greatness, and none of them fall to complete destitution. Events remain local, personal or familial. And precisely because of that, everything remains credible. The effects are magnified by their closeness to home.

Throughout Rose Tremain's always surprising but always simple and free-flowing prose provides the perfect vehicle to communicate these complex relationships in their simplest, yet most vivid form.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes is a novel. Its subject is real. The person lived a famous life. This, however, is neither memoir nor biography. It is not a critique. Neither does it claim to be fact, though the factual record and history form the spine of the work. In some ways, Julian Barnes is revisiting the territory of Flaubert's Parrot, but in a more intense, completely personal way, without the potential distraction of a fictional author as a go-between.

The Noise Of Time deals with the life and work of a composer. Novels about music tend to miss their intended mark. Carpenter's The Lost Steps and McEwan's Amsterdam might quality as exceptions. But here, Julian Barnes approaches from an original angle. The music is there, but its existence is assumed, its generation simply a part of its creator's life. The author does not need to describe every meal that sustains the life of one who needs to eat, and so Julian Barnes can safely by-pass the process by which a compulsive composer creates. In The Noise Of Time it is the art's context, political, social and historical, that drives the plot and thus constructs the character of the undoubtedly real composer.

The composer is Dmitri Shostakovich, prodigy, genius, icon of the state, embodiment in sound of the revolution. Or was he?  Obviously not. Why obviously?  The world is aware of his achievements - fifteen each of symphony and string quartet, two concertos each for piano, cello and violin, chamber and choral music, ballet scores and a couple of operas, including that particular opera, that infamous opera.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is perhaps our starting point, because it, along with the Fourth Symphony marked the start of the composer's brush with state power that was Stalin's State, the Power. This music, to bureaucrat and dictator alike, represented formalism, the tendency of the artist to inhabit the self rather than society, and write for an elite rather than a public. We are all guilty.

To illustrate an artist's life in conflict with authoritarian expectation, Julian Barnes adopts a particular and unexpected style. It is a choice that is very hard to bring off, but Julian Barnes does it with apparent ease. Via a third person narrative, more suited to linear narrative or formal record rather than episodic reflection, we enter the passing thoughts that flit through the composer's mind as he faces the immediate dangers that confront him. Initially this grates. It seems to fall between first person narrative reliving experience and a detached historical record. But then, quickly, a reader realizes that any artist inevitably becomes alienated from published work, because it becomes the property of those who claim it for their own experience. It is the artist, often the composer, who becomes an internal third person, someone who already exists for posterity, rather than the present. The work is already complete, but posterity has yet to be created, and in whose image will that be?

The novel runs across three large chapters, entitled On the landing, On the plane and In the car. These apparently momentary encounters with Dmitri Shostakovich occur at significant points of his brushes with authority and power. These are moments when he must reflect on what it means to be an artist, a servant of the state, a husband, father, Russian, a hero of the people and a coward, all alongside the pressure of staying alive. Occasionally, apparently, he composes and plays music.

Because of Julian Barnes's stylistic choice of third person narrative married to an implied record of the character's own thought, the text can inhabit the external world of historical fact and Shostakovich's internal doubts simultaneously. The reader, like the artist, can cope with a third person who behaves like a first. And so, when the text also includes elements of dialogue to describe the composer's intermittent brushes with Power, we feel we are there alongside the artist fearing for his life, choosing his words as carefully as he has chosen his notes both to project  himself and to protect himself.

Thus, via a short but intense novel, Julian Barnes presents a rounded portrait of the artist, a flavour of his times and its history and an appreciation of the composer's achievement. There are even musical techniques built into the fabric of the piece. Leitmotifs, apparently minor details or asides, reappear. Oranges and pigs, a Mercedes for Prokofiev, an imagined Red Beethoven are some of the germs that reappear throughout the text, just like D-S-C-H permeates the composer's output, perhaps as a means of communicating when he was writing for himself, and not following dictates.

The Noise Of Time is the kind of book that passes quickly, but whose impression and influence will be long-lasting. Just like its subject.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Schubert and his work – Herbert Francis Peyser

Schubert and his work – Herbert Francis Peyser turns out to be a short and simple account of Schubert’s life. Given when the book was written, there is no surprise that the concept of venereal disease did not raise its head in the entire piece. It was alluded to, but there was not even a nudge or a wink in the text. The final diagnosis became typhus. Some interesting points:
·         father- parsimonious, poor, haughty
·         father taught son
·         child handed over to a local teacher who drank too much
·         father chucked him out for a while
·         conscription was avoided by studying
·         often careless with his work (though not deliberately)
·         hint of homosexuality
·         “You squander your thoughts without developing them”
·         Would not eat for several days at the end

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Edward B Taylor’s Anahuac, Mexico and the Mexicans, proved to be a thoroughly surprising read. Not only was this written in the late 1860s, but it was composed and expressed in apparently modern terms and modern language. Some of the attitudes might be old fashioned, and the concept of the noble savage keeps rearing its head, but the general feeling throughout was that here were travellers who brought minds open enough to be influenced. One wonders if most modern tourists are as flexible. And here was the United States to the north, just emerging from the Civil War, not yet the established world power it would be just a couple of decades later. On reflection, one is reminded of the rise and growth of China since its own, more protracted upheavals of the mid-twentieth century.

A Pushcart At The Curb is a set of poems by John Dos Passos. Its language is unremarkable, hardly poetic in places, but interesting, nevertheless.

Brief Diversions, Tales, Treatises and Epigrams by JB Priestley is what it says on the tin, and often embarrassingly straightforward. 

A History Of England Volume 1 by David Hume is enlightening, literally, from the period of enlightenment. Hume’s prose is wonderfully transparent, the clarity sometimes brilliant.

A revisit to Chekhov via Uncle Vanya recalls that evening in Scarborough that would have been, perhaps, in 1968 or 9, when one, being me, was revising for trial exams on holiday, when a production, no doubt directed by Alan Ayckbourn made such a strong and lasting impression.

Edward Potts Cheyney’s An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England made little of an impression.

Italian Hours by Henry James takes us on pretty well-known Italian sights. But is it possible for this particular author to express himself, albeit with a true talent for sentence construction, and notwithstanding his undeniable grasp of vocabulary, though sometimes rather mis-placed, I might say!, ever, despite his quest to communicate the immediacy of experience, to write a simple sentence?

And then a revisit to The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance by Bernard Berenson. I’ve not read that since I was a student, methinks. It’s still a work of astounding scholarship and perception, despite the fact that now I have seen much of the material he is describing at first hand.

Essays by David Hume range in their subject matter, but not in their quality, which is always superb.


Kate Atkinson - Behind The Scenes At The Museum

Kate Atkinson´s
read for the first time in the form of Behind The Scenes At The Museum. It’s a magical realist style, quite superbly virtuosic and utterly vivid in everything it tries to do. It’s the story of Ruby, a 1950s girl whom we meet, like Tristram Shandy, before she is born. She seems to have perfect recall for a memory, which later on becomes something of a contradiction, because the plot hinges on a particular empty area of her past, something that she has apparently blocked out completely. Ruby's ability to recall detail of events where she was not even present seems astounding, and makes her inability to remember anything about a twin whom she is, after all, accused of killing is all the more incredible. It was her sister’s fault anyway. Overall the book is beautiful, but just once in a while I wanted it to break free of the confines of the family, just for a while. The garden gate seemed to be open, but we could never quite et through it. This limitation did not detract from what was in itself a beautifully constructed and brilliantly written book,

The Jealous God by John Braine

The Jealous God by John Braine was published in 1964, just a short while after his blockbusting Room At The Top and its sequel, Life At the Top.  Braine was one of the original ‘angry young men’, those upstarts of English life, who had not been nurtured entirely by the conventional establishment, and who at least began their careers by attacking and satirising its safe conventions and patronising assumptions. At least that’s how they began…

By the time we reach the mid-1960s and The Jealous God, however, there are already signs – now overt where previously they had been only implied – of the author’s apparent yearning to ally with convention. His espousal of establishment thinking, however, seems still to be an uneasy relationship, still suffused with doubt and at least some guilt.

The Jealous God, like most of Braine’s work, is set in what was the West Riding of Yorkshire, with its uneasy marriage of coal, wool and engineering, alongside a deeply traditional agricultural sector in which medieval landowners still held their stake. Suffused with notions of class allegiance, the region’s inhabitants brushed shoulders as they walked the same streets, but they voted along social class lines for different political parties, displayed utterly different cultural identities and drank different drinks in different pubs.

Unlike Room At The Top, The Jealous God lives solidly in the lower middle class world of a history teacher in a Catholic Boys’ School. And that also, though not here forming an issue, would have been a Grammar School, so precious few working class lads would have been present in Vincent Dungarvan’s discussion classes, and even fewer of them would have ever have spoken up. It is the Roman Catholic faith of Vincent and his family that takes centre stage in the book’s plot.

Fifty years on a reader might be forgiven for assuming that homosexuality and child abuse might also figure as themes, but they simply do not. Vincent Dungarvan may regularly, albeit subliminally, question his faith, but he is never an abuser of it.

Vincent is a teacher. He’s educated, but perhaps also pedantic and just a little pedestrian. We rarely, in fact, follow him into the classroom and, unlike most teachers, he hardly ever talks about his work in his hours of relaxation. He rarely spends his time marking, it seems. He is already thirty years old and remains an unmarried virgin. His mother, a devout, guilt-besmirched widow, really did hope that he might become a priest, but by innuendo worries that he is continually sinning, either by lack of conscience or embrace of Onan.

Vincent, himself, seems not really to have had a past. His present begins on page one and rather progresses from there. One feels there might be more to tell, but nothing much is shared. He has two brothers, one who drinks rather too much and neglects his child-laden and frustrated wife. The other, more successful but inferior intellectually, seems to be a pillar of familial convention, even down to seventeen inch televisions and house extensions. Vincent also has a grandmother who seems pious, philosophical or pragmatic at whim. Grandparents often are.

John Braine’s book proceeds to examine events that see Vincent in the arms of two different married women, both, for different reasons, remaining unavailable until he can break free of the manacles of his own and his mother’s faith, a seemingly impossible ask. Guilt associates with momentary ecstasy, always mingled with disbelief and self-doubt. He seems willing to be flexible, but reverts to type whenever he starts to bend. Eventually, and unfortunately, he becomes something of a vehicle for the statement of women’s dilemmas, though these were probably not at the forefront of the author’s intentions. Though Vincent appears to want to espouse convention, the circumstances in which he finds himself, alongside his own reactions to them repeatedly place him at odds with the very assumptions he deep down wants to uphold. And so there’s questionable parentage, dilemmas of ideology and bucketsful of guilt to negotiate, especially as he negotiates with his own conscience as to what do about Laura, the apparently unlucky librarian. Laura’s own dilemmas are the more interesting, but we approach them only via Vincent’s interests.

But what is eventually fascinating is how John Braine conveniently offers his characters redemption. Having apparently begun as a free spirit, Vincent eventually finds himself willingly espousing convention, albeit in circumstances he could never have envisaged. As a snapshot of its time, The Jealous God remains a thoroughly engaging book. As a catalogue of how its author migrated from angry young man to conventional conservative, it is both informative and vivid.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is a subtle, moving book about espionage. There is a touch of oxymoron about that, somewhere. No-one is killed. There are no guns. No-one is shot, poisoned, dismembered or tortured, at least not physically, within these pages. There’s plenty of anguish, however, but this is usually personal and more often than not self-inflicted. Sweet Tooth demonstrates that drama, excitement and suspense can be generated by a plot that puts people and their relationships at the fore. After all, intelligence is born of people’s thoughts, and is rarely generated by bullets or car chases.

Sirena Frome (rhymes with plume) has been brought up with her sister by a Church of England Bishop as father, married to a rather frumpish wife. The background is dismissed quickly, but returns occasionally. Ian McEwan via Sirena tells us that it’s not important. What is significant is Sirena’s love of reading and associated ability to absorb texts at speed and, alongside that, her seemingly innate facility for mathematics. She just can’t see the problems that others refuse. She ought to have studied English, but pragmatism choses the mathematics option and Cambridge embraces her, though not happily. She is no ordinary mathematician, as her university is soon to find out.

It must also be noted that Sirena Frome (rhymes with plume) was also a child of the sixties and has developed a liberal approach to and a distinct taste for sex. She is blonde, young and desirable, certainly not dumb. Wherever she goes, it seems not to take long before sensuality bubbles to a boiling surface.
And thus Sirena leads her author, Ian McEwan, into several relationships of varying frequency, quality and intensity. There’s a bloke who realises, through her, that he prefers other blokes. There’s an affair with an older man, a Cambridge tutor with a complex marriage and, as it turns out, other complexities as well. There is a colleague in her first job, facilitated by her complex older man, who gets nowhere with Sirena and leaves for pastures elsewhere. And there is Tom Hanley, a writer who develops a style that really hits the spot.

Sirena’s relatively brief fling with the older Cambridge tutor leads to a recommendation that she should apply for a job with the Civil Service. And this is not to be any old filing clerk position, but something with one of those secret outfits, MI5, no less. The talk and gossip about the office and the papers concentrates on some weighty issues of the day – miners’ strike, three-day weeks, Provisional IRA activities in Northern Ireland. As a woman, Sirena Frome believes she is probably at a disadvantage when the tasks are given out, with the big boys allowed to cherry-pick. They just don’t take women seriously, it seems, and the jobs they get are jokes.

And Sirena does get a job – cleaning. It leads elsewhere and soon she finds herself at the forefront of intelligence work, reading. Questions arise by chance and, of course, in a world where no-one trusts anyone, there are never any answers, only suggested half-truths. Some of the pieces, however, start to fit, and the picture becomes familiar. A colleague tries it on, but it doesn’t work out. He retreats, but skeletons are left in cupboards where we thought there was no furniture.
Sirena’s reading is focussed, its aim to decipher, perhaps lead opinion. In the end, isn’t intelligence about just that, what we think, what we assume? And who decides that? How is it that one career flourishes, leads to stardom and award, while others, apparently equally talented, wither and die, or at worst, stumble along in anonymity? Is this an area where intelligence services can usefully contribute? Is this a sensible question, given what we already know? And just which writers and works have benefitted in the past from virtual state sponsorship? Some will be revealed, suggested, at least.
This is where Tom Hanley appears. Academic, unlikely and unknown, he has produced some interesting work. It’s not especially noteworthy, we might fell, but there is potential. Exactly where might that potential lead? And who might take up the cause to offer support, guidance, influence? And precisely what role might Sirena play?

And it is here that Sweet Tooth displays its remarkable subtlety. It examines the concepts of fame, appreciation, critical acclaim and success, and even the nature of creativity, itself, in surprising ways, never via the head-on anguish we have come to expect. When writers write, who is it that is in control of the process? If art is the imitation of life, what forces shape the reality we experience? When we say we believe something, or adopt an opinion, just how much of it is generated on our behalf so that we might adopt it as a package? And can values be promoted? Of course they can, but by whom, and for what reasons? And who picks up the pieces should the whole thing backfire?

Sweet Tooth continues its way, relating a plot that involves treachery, deceit, double-dealing and a shifting of alliances that might constitute betrayal. At the heart of everything is sex, personal relationships and self-interest, however. The story lives through a passionate relationship between the clandestine Sirena and her writer. Though she desires permanence, Sirena can never reveal exactly who she is to her lover. Can he be open with her?

The novel thus presents a story related from a distant future, a reminiscence of what might have been. Throughout, Ian McEwan’s prose is nothing less than a joy, delicately transparent and arrestingly vivid at the same time. But, by the end, we are not even sure whose book has been written, or even who the real writer might have been. Until, that is, we immediately start it all over again. And then…

Grass For My Feet by J. Vijayatunga

Urala is a village near Galle in the south of Sri Lanka. Its existence might be fiction, but equally it might have been, or be reality. Everyday life there, just like anywhere, is a mixture of the expected and unexpected, change and tradition, ritual and experiment, received values and new directions. In fact, Urala is pretty much like anywhere in that folk live their lives, set up homes, get married, have children, perhaps, grow up and die, for sure. So what is special about Urala? Well, on the face of it, nothing. But this village does have the distinction of having its day-to-day life described in some detail by J. Vijayatunga in his book, Grass For My Feet.

This is not a novel. Neither is it a factual account, a social study of a community. And these cannot easily be called short stories. There are no obvious plots. Grass For My Feet is rather a collection of occasional or descriptive pieces, coming near in style to a regular newspaper column, of the “letter from” genre. Sometimes something typical is featured. Sometimes it’s an event, and sometimes the focus is merely inter and intra-family relations. But the reader should not expect drama, or even anything like a linear story to unfold. And perhaps these pieces are best approached one or two per sitting, rather than as a collection to be started and finished.

The tales cover many aspects of village life. There are burglaries, weddings, even a murder, funerals and births. There’s an argument or two. There are inheritances, ceremonies, religious festivals and visits to the doctor, traditional remedies alongside potions from the apothecary. We entertain Bikkhus and then do it again. We visit temples, prepare food for feast days and celebrations, and then we eat it. We describe foods, grow them, praise the family’s cattle, harvest fruits, winnow grain, plant trees, climb them and chop them. And we also walk through the forest, memorably.

This, then, is village life in the middle of the last century, writ as small as it was and as large as it felt. Sri Lanka is Ceylon in much of this text and there are still English colonials in administrative office. There is a reverence for things European (at least white and English) alongside an assumption that anything local is better. But there is also change in the air, despite its progress being almost imperceptible.

The style is unconventional in that Mr Vijayatunga’s paragraphs are often long and meandering, often without focus or point. But again life in Urala is probably like that, and these pieces are offered as impressionistic record of that life and the culture that underpins it. By the end we feel that we have been there, to this village in Sri Lanka, felt its warmth, wandered through its forest, tasted its food and been grateful for our invitation. But we are also conscious that this is a past remembered and, to an extent, an ideal reconstructed. The experience is rich enough to convince us that we can never, as literary tourists, understand the true significance of these recollections for the villagers, themselves. We are outsiders and remain so even at the end of the book. Between the covers of Grass for My Feet, however, we are invited in and allowed to share the life of a village in Ceylon. So, if this is tourism, it is of the richest, most enlightening kind.

The Adventure Of English by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg subtitles The Adventure Of English with the intriguing phrase “The Biography of a Language”. He thus implies that the language, specifically English, has a life of its own, setting himself the task of creating both an adventure and a narrative that will convince the reader that the language has both an identity and, to some extent, a personality that identifies an individuality. He succeeds on all counts.

The story starts of course with a birth and then unfolds chronologically throughout the first half of the book, before diverging to examine the different and often parallel geographical manifestations of English in the modern world. These have happened since the dawn of Empire and, as a consequence of their disparate elements and different paths of development, perhaps suggest that English is more of a family than an individual. Amazingly, Melvyn Bragg goes through eleven chapters before considering Shakespeare. The book is thus quite careful in its examination of the origins of the language and its early development.

Later on there are three chapters on the language in the United States, one each on Australia, India and the West Indies. We come across a little, perhaps not enough, Singlish from Singapore, and Africa is largely ignored, except for the influence of African languages on English in the Americas.

Melvyn Bragg also devotes considerable time to the discussion of accent, pronunciation, dialect and correctness. Obviously each of these areas could have been a lifetime’s work, let alone a book in itself, but Melvyn Bragg succeeds at least in defining the territory and correctly identifying the parts played by snobbishness and social class in the application of labels such as coarse, standard or even correct.
A decade and a half ago, I myself managed to astound an American colleague who, having prejudged the length of my “a” asked me to pronounce the word b-a-t-h. He was a New Yorker and was more than surprised when I intoned a sound that rhymed with American math. He had expected, of course, a sound like “barth”. Melvyn Bragg identifies this short “a” with an older version of English, one that predated the strong French influence of the eighteenth century that produced the long “a”, amongst other things, especially amongst the middle classes of southern England. The American settlers, of course, left Britain before this new-fangled foreign influence arrived, so they retained their short “a”, which is of course the correct version. This serves to remind us that whatever we speak in our daily lives and wherever we live, we are perhaps born into a language and the one we adopt as infants becomes part of our very identity.

This is just one example of many of interest that appear in The Adventure Of English. Once assembled, these quirks of history really do allow the language to create its own identity. It is thus portrayed as a living, developing entity, constantly changing its appearance whilst many try to hold it fixed.
The Adventure Of English by Melvyn Bragg is in no way a comprehensive look at the language, its development and its contemporary manifestations. But is does achieve admirably what it intends to do at the start, which is to create an adventure and present an as yet incomplete biography.

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

“How pointless real life was! In novels, events led up to something,” thought Ezra, as he scanned his mother’s diary.  “What would you say is your patients’ most common disease?” This was what Ezra later asked of his medic sister, Jenny. “Mother-itis,” Jenny replied. Their mother, Pearl, so central to their lives, yet so difficult a project for any of them, passes away to be eulogised at her funeral in a manner that was “so vague, so general, so universally applicable, that Cody thought of that parlour game where people fill in words at random and then giggle hysterically at the story that results.” Cody was another of Pearl’s three children, the first, in fact, and also the most difficult. It was, of course, the children, those that remained after their mother’s death, that were the consequences of the random gap filling that had not even recognised their mother. And then, at the end of Pearl’s funeral service, the minister announced the closing hymn, chosen by Pearl herself. “We’ll Understand It All By And By.” Perhaps she did. Perhaps.

In its quiet, essentially suburban understatement, Anne Tyler’s tale of family life in Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant is nothing less than a masterpiece. As ever with Anne Tyler, the family lives in Baltimore, is not rich, is not particularly poor and presents little that is even potentially memorable. When Pearl and Beck Tull married, they might have anticipated a shared life of convention, an expectation that might have been on the way to fulfilment when three children arrived and the progress of their father in his sales career seemed assured. But then we all take far too much for granted. Beck Tull disappeared, walked out, apparently to pursue his career via a posting that had to take him away from Baltimore. But soon this was an independent life. The letters home became infrequent, the fifty dollars he apologetically generously enclosed less dependable.

Such events might have proved earth shattering if Pearl Tull had not been such an effective, if reluctant pragmatist. For the good of her family, apparently, she made the best of things, created excuses, refused to accept that this was a separation, and chose not to offer an opinion to her children. Such a change thus becomes a different form of convention. These events are set, of course, in the mid-twentieth century and in the United States, where such occurrences were not unknown.

And so Pearl was left to raise three kids. She took a job behind a store counter and walked to work to save on fares. Cody, the eldest of the three, had always been difficult. Ezra was meeker, milder, perhaps prone to naiveté, a quality he never quite managed to grow out of. Jenny was perhaps the most capable, and talented, certainly the most obviously practical of the three. She was motivated to study, to go to medical school and become a doctor. And that is exactly what she did. Ezra took on a restaurant, the eating house of the title, though we are not to conclude that Jenny’s later eating disorders are a result of the unconventional nature of the family menu. Cody became a time and motion man, but a very successful one. He always did seem to have a desire to tell other what they should be doing.
And thus all three of Pearl´s children grow up. They survive because of, rather than in spite of their mother, but the recipients of the love feel things differently. These people live anticipatory lives, their experience of the present dominated by a view of the future as it ought not to be. These people are never “well”, only “pre-ill”. They are never “happy, only “pre-trauma”. They never enter into “marriage”, only “pre-divorce”. And yet illness and trauma only rarely visit their essentially safe lives, though perhaps inevitably divorce is somewhat more common. As adults, they continually reinterpret their past, without ever really either acknowledging it or knowing it.

What happens to these characters is the important and essential content of the book, so a review of Anne Tyler’s Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant must leave all detail to be discovered by the reader. But eventually what happens is far less important than how it happens. The book’s currency is the complexity of the relationships between and amongst these family members. And these inter-relationships, though often both predictable and dysfunctional as well as avoidable are described by Anne Tyler in truly beautiful, economic prose via the shared events of their fictional but illustrative lives.

But it must be recorded that Ezra inherits a restaurant, and several of the family encounters that form the spine of the story take place over the dinner table. Not every dish served up is to everyone’s individual taste, but when did individual preferences count for anything when the collective of family is so strong? Even when superficially it might appear weak… As time passes, it becomes clear that it might not just be the food that might be described as a “concoction” when these family members get together.

Anne Tyler’s genius lies in her ability to make the mundane captivating. These people could live next door. They are not gentry, not celebrities. They are not really achievers and, at least on the face of things, might not possess any feature that might be described as outstanding. But then that is entirely Anne Tyler’s point. They are ordinary people of their time but, as individuals and then because of that collective we label “family”, they are of course unique, And their lives consist of never-to-be-repeated attempts to solve the challenges their unique circumstances generate. They offer no great surprises, no significant crimes, no earth-shattering traumas, and witness no particular history. But their lives continually change, develop, disintegrate, reform and surprise. In Anne Tyler’s work, life itself is the plot and the family is its landscape.

History, Myth. Fact, Fiction – Several Points Of View: A Review Of Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Reviews often begin by warning of spoilers. Neither excuse nor warning here for saying that Alison Weir’s book, Innocent Traitor, recounts the public and political life of Lady Jane Grey. She was sixteen years old and married by agreement when, in 1554, she was beheaded upon the order of Queen Mary of England, after being convicted of treason. Mary, you see, was a Roman Catholic and Lady Jane Grey was a Protestant. The young lady had been elevated to the throne by interested parties and had herself been Queen of England for just nine days after the death of the juvenile, and himself manipulated, Edward The Sixth. Jane Grey’s elevation to the throne had been nothing more than a blatant plot to hold on to power by a group led by the dead King’s Proetctor, if that be the word to use. The plot, which had not involved Lady Jane herself, was a ploy to maintain the Protestant identity of the English crown. Mary, Henry The Eighth’s daughter by Spanish Catholic Katherine of Aragon perhaps had the greater claim to the throne. She was the old king’s daughter, but she had been born of an annulled marriage to a queen who had also formerly been married to Henry’s brother, a fact that in some eyes rendered the marriage to Henry illegal from the start. Opinion was determined by which side of the religious divide was asked. But, as ever, pragmatism surfaced and interests ruled. But no-one can hold on to usurped power without support. And when what you have ebbs away, you get it in the neck. Here endeth the spoilers.

Innocent Traitor is an historical novel. It sticks to the facts, embroidering them only when records are scant. This is not Hollywood, and so reality cannot be edited. And we all know the facts, so it is neither cliché nor spoiler to re-state that “she dies in the end”. What is crucial to Alison Weir’s scheme, however, is how things happen, how motives and allegiances shift and coalesce to create what eventually feels like an inevitable fate for Lady Jane, who became the only remaining and unwilling pawn in a vast power play. And, in describing these events, motives, allegiances and deceits, Alison Weir creates a rich tapestry of fact, embroidered with minimal invention, depicting how fate unfolds to take the life of Lady Jane. If you did not already understand the history, then by the end of Innocent Traitor, you will. If you did already have a grasp on events, then by the end of the book you will see them clearer.

The story is told through the eyes and thoughts of several characters. Lady Jane Grey herself is to the fore, but her scheming and unloving parents, Frances Brandon and Henry Grey make crucial contributions. We also meet several queens, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr and Mary. We meet Elizabeth almost in passing, but her tricks spice the tale throughout. The book appears to concentrate on the women, which is interesting in itself, but then males appear, such as the inevitable John Dudley and the flighty Henry Fitzalan. All of these characters – and more! – relate their tales in the first person and the present tense.

Now here is the great shortcoming of Innocent Traitor, since each of these people ought to have a different perspective, a different point of view and might even use different types of language. They would certainly have brought different assumptions into focus, given their disparate backgrounds. Innocent Traitor, however, requires them to deliver facts to the reader, and they all do this efficiently, and in rather similar style. And yet we, the readers, are taken into the first person, present tense thoughts of a woman in childbirth, a person being executed, a maid dressing her mistress, and then, almost in the next breath, we are plotting potential treason, intrigue, or merely justifying religious difference. As such, these characters rather lose their identities and emerge as mere vehicles for delivering the plot of historical events.

But despite the required and rather lengthy suspension of disbelief that is required by the novel’s form, the complexity and jaw-sagging duplicity, recalcitrance and utter selfishness of these people make Innocent Traitor an absolutely riveting read. By the end, one wonders why it is that that these people, and probably others like them, who populated the centres of power throughout history are not today described simply as the two-faced, lying murderers they were.

And by the end we are also left with a certain emptiness of the stomach when we realise that all this scheming was all prompted by these people’s adherence or not to merely different versions of obvious myth. If we have to suspend belief to accommodate unlikely points of view, then we might also want to admit defeat in order to appreciate the fact that these people, and many thousands of others, were persecuted, executed or merely fell in war as a result of an argument about a largely mythical man who defied gravity and rose bodily into the skies, and an institution that maintains bread changes into flesh and wine into blood – and does it daily!

Innocent Traitor, despite faults generated by its form, is a highly successful book. It captures the motives very accurately and leads the reader into complete sympathy with the plight of Lady Jane Grey who, at just sixteen years of age when the axe severed her neck, just wanted to be left alone with her books. These, it seems, were the wrong books.

Perfect Hostage – A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle

Justin Wintle’s Perfect Hostage – A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi is not a book with a particularly perfect title. It sounds like it will be a simply a biography, and perhaps a rather fawning one, of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, perhaps erring on the side of hero worship.

In fact Justin Wintle’s book presents much more than this. It does document the life, examine the politics and describe the actions of its dedicatee. But it also traces her background, both personal and public, and considers the status of her family in Burmese national consciousness. It describes in some detail the life of her legendary father, General Aung San. But Perfect Hostage is even more again. The book provides a wonderful account of Burma’s recent history, examining the politics, the role of the military and popular movements and then in more recent times the responses of the dictatorship in precise and informative detail. Passages that describe Burma’s participation in the Second World War are particularly illuminating, especially when juxtaposed with the course of later events.

From this account of her life, Aung San Suu Kyi emerges as a rather paradoxical figure. She is cast as both assertive in her commitment to do something for her country, and simultaneously ponderous in her apparent unwillingness to grasp opportunities when they arise. Again paradoxically we appreciate her determination to seek change, alongside her reluctance to destabilise. Her ultimate aim appears to be unification, but this may be in itself unachievable, since the diversity of interests at play may prove irreconcilable.

Throughout, via Justin Wintle’s admirably constructed work, we appreciate the contribution of Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, to his wife’s achievement. Together they shared personal, intellectual and political interests in Burma, interests that eventually led to action. This joint desire to act may have eventually have led to a separation, but that separation was merely corporal, since the couple’s joint motivation continued to thrive. And, via its consideration of Michael Aris’s role in events, Perfect Hostage eventually presents a wonderfully rounded and complete account of the personal, family and public life that Aung San Suu Kyi has led.

The book is surprising in its scope, its depth and its scholarship, but only because its title suggest something rather less than comprehensive. An example of the detail the book presents will illustrate. Justin Wintle relates some of the personal proclivities of Ne Win, Burma’s military ruler for many years. “If he travelled outside the capital, he did so in a flight of helicopters, his staff having made sure that all stray dogs in the vicinity – especially those with crooked tails – had been rounded up and slaughtered. For Ne Win was fearful of stray dogs – especially those with crooked tails...” Following on from this, we are told that when Ne Win was warned of an impending assassination attempt, he would trample in his bedroom on the entrails of a dog or in a bowl of pig’s blood and then “he would raise his revolver... and shoot himself in the mirror.” You just cannot make this up.

Human history, it seems, is full of such ridiculous detail. But it is also full of honesty, endeavour and idealism. Justin Wintle’s portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi is replete with all of these qualities.

Capital In The Twenty First Century by Thomas Picketty

A review of Capital In The Twenty First Century would itself have to be a book, so let this be a mere reflection on some of Thomas Picketty’s wealth of material. And there is no better place to start than his startling demonstration of how little changes in the structure of the ownership of wealth, unless war intervenes. Furthermore, his demonstration that things are getting back to ‘normal’ after the twin conflict shocks of the twentieth century’s World Wars could, unless tempered by resigned realism, easily provoke depression in the reader. Thomas Picketty’s book ought to be required reading for anyone – certainly anyone who happens tp be British – who benefitted from the social mobility available in the 1950s to 1970s. We have tended to blame the 1944 Education Act for providing the abnormal conditions that led to a measurable, albeit temporary, decrease in inequality. But Thomas Picketty sets the record straight by clarifying that it was merely a result of the aberrations of war, which for a few decades weakened the power of capital. Normal service has since been resumed.

Picketty desribes how unevenly capital is distributed, especially in the developed societies. Typically, half of the population owns nothing, while the top ten per cent has about half of the wealth. For Picketty, capital means fixed assets that could potentially be traded, whose ownership can be bought and sold. It includes fixed assets, property, equity or cash, and excludes all forms of human capital, which may be an asset and may have value, but, he argues, its ownership can only be traded in slave societies, which now do not exist. He considers capital distribution and income distributions separately, however, so at least an element of human capital is represented in the latter. He observes that income is always more evenly distributed than fixed capital, with the top ten per cent receiving just 25 to 30 per cent of total incomes. As a consequence, if there has been any shift in the identity of the capital-owning elite in recent decades, then this has come about at least in large part as a result of the very highly remuneration available to certain professions at the very top of the income ladder. The phenomenon has also resulted in an increase in inequality observed in developed societies during recent decades, especially in the USA and United Kingdom. Inequality continues to increase.

One of Picketty’s fundamental laws is that capital always grows faster than the wider economy. Thus success via earning power inevitably leads to a graduation into the rentier class, a transformation that is needed if newly acquired status is to be consolidated. Furthermore, if the inequality stating that capital growth is greater than economic growth holds true, it implies that even the advantages of growth in the general economy will also eventually accrue to the owners of capital.

Historically, economic growth has been strongly associated with increasing population. Without the demographic element, economies have consistently attained no more than around two per cent growth. Two per cent is still a significant rate if maintained. But spurts in growth come with spurts in population. The opposite is also likely to be true, which in itself allows some facets of the current world economy to be seen in more informative light. Population surges produce economic surges, however, and this comes as no surprise. What does surprise a little is Picketty’s assertion, perhaps assumption, that since France experienced population growth before other developed societies, then we must all look to France as the setter of the international economic agenda, the historic standard, if you like, that others followed.

Another historical reality that shows up very clearly in his data is the effect of foreign earnings throughout the nineteenth century and through World War One. These “invisibles”, as they have sometimes been labelled, were simply the profits from colonialism and slavery. They financed deficits, borrowing and consumption at the heart of the empires from which they were drawn. In the modern world, he points out, there is perhaps a greater degree of foreign ownership of capital than ever before, but the benefits and capital transfers are two-way, as are the benefits, and thus net transfers are small.

This history is illustrated in economic data. He cites a number of cases where an imperial power, having amassed large debts after periods of conflict or downturn, managed to earn five per cent or more of its national income from invisibles, thus allowing the country in question to service debts that otherwise would have been crippling. In the modern world, crucially, this get-out-of-jail card is perhaps no longer available.

One aspect of Picketty’s analysis does surprise us. Throughout the book he uses fiction as a source of illustration, a source that will cause many an academic reader of the text to pause and wonder. Picketty often cites examples from Balzac, Austen and others to illustrate general points about the behaviour of capital. The process, though highly selective and, it must be said, apocryphal, does eventually convince, but it is the novelists that eventually shine through, not the economic model. His argument, which he claims is illustrated so clearly in nineteenth century fiction, is that it is always more likely that capital will be inherited or indeed married rather than earned. The endless machinations associated with finding a suitable marriage partner for eligible females in nineteenth century fiction are mere recognition that it is easier to marry money than earn it, capital growth being always lower than economic growth.

If Capital In The Twenty First Century can be criticised, then it is in its rather scant, even dismissive coverage of human capital. Yes, this becomes absorbed into income data. But the author does maintain that  “democratic modernity is founded on the belief that inequalities based on individual talent and effort are more justified than other inequalities – or at least we hope to be moving in that direction.” He contrasts this belief with a Balzac character who foregoes the chance of studying law in order to seek marriage to a fortune, and then asks who would do such a thing today?

Now if credentials as well as skills obtained by participants in education do develop human capital, even if this is only reflected in increased earnings, then access to high quality education is needed before these skills and credentials are attainable. It might even be argued that now the educational experience is not only sufficient for capital advancement but also necessary, since even the opportunity to wed capital may hinge on the attainment or not of educational levels that are preconditions for entering that particular market.

And so if education has become just another commodity offered via a market, then the cost of accessing the most highly developed and effective delivery systems will rise, since these are the most effective means of securing access to capital, whether via earnings or marriage. Such costs will also rise since, having become a market, educational demand will be highest from those with a need to protect their existing ownership of capital, and they have the resources to pay for what they need. Education thus becomes a means of confirming and re-asserting wealth, rather than a potential avenue for social mobility. Perhaps today it is still easier to marry wealth than earn it. Except that today the option of marriage may be determined by an educational credential that can most effectively be secured by existing access to wealth.

This argument, it seems, closes the loop and illustrates how, even in a materialistic society, capital will always grow faster than the economy as a whole and why inequality will not only persist, but increase.

No book review should concentrate on what a book is not. So as a final note let me describe Thomas Picketty’s book as essential reading for anyone with a brain. If you can disprove its analysis empirically, rather than merely deny its significance on ideological grounds, then please present your data. If you can’t, then join the call for policies that will attempt to address the destructive imbalances that result in growing inequality. It must be remembered that, underpinning Capital In The Twenty First Century is a need to examine whether a certain text called Capital in the nineteenth century contained a grain of truth in asserting that eventually the capitalist system would collapse under pressure of its own inevitable imbalances. The conclusion appears to have been demonstrated, and the case for re-reading that other book is thus made.