Saturday, June 09, 2012

Book Review : The Game by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1999, first published 1967)

It is the winter of 1963, and when sisters Julia and Cassandra return to Northumberland on the death of their father, they are snowed in. Living once again in such close company, they are forced to re-examine aspects of their childhood, and the causes of the rivalry that has blighted their relationship. Foremost is their relationship with their neighbour, Simon, who is now a leading herpetologist and TV personality. Julia is married to Thor, who retains the Quaker religion that they all once shared, and is an author, whilst Cassandra is an Oxford don of Medieval literature.

This is a book as stifling and claustrophobic as Julia and Cassandra's relationship. Cassandra's jealousy of Julia is triggered when she won a writing competition as a girl. It was compounded by the attention that Simon showed to her. Julia is prettier, more easy-going, more successful, lacking the introversion and obsessiveness of Cassandra, but just as vulnerable.

It is a finely-written book, showing deep insight into the sisters' relationships, yet was never an enjoyable book to read. Partly there is a sense that everything is overdetermined, all the relationships in the book are too intense. All the characters are infuriating without exception. There is also a sense that parts of it just don't quite ring true. The Baker family, for example, who add to the sense of claustrophobia by being invited by Thor to live at their flat, never make it beyond a caricature of the indigent poor, whilst the fate of Simon's camaraman is supposed to be shocking but is almost amusing.

Much symbolism arrives with a clunk. It is very convenient that Simon is a herpetologist, introducing discord into the garden. Cassandra, meanwhile, studies dessicated medieval documents, and keeps a statuette of Morgan Le Fay. Thor's religion is seen as an oppressive force, forcing him to try to be good. In the end, its all a bit much. As Ivan comments on Julia's novel "it has a lifelessness books have when they're overwrought." It would be ten years before A.S. Byatt published another novel, but within a couple of pages one would be able to sense a lightness which this novel and its predecessor lacked.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Book Review : Capital by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber 2012)

The residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are incomers. Roger and Arabella Yount bought their upmarket property from the proceeds of Roger's job as an Investment Banker. Freddy Kamo is a Premiership footballer. Ahmed Kamal runs the corner shop with his wife and two brothers. Meanwhile, Zbigniew the Polish builder is putting up Arabella's shelves, whilst Quentina Mkfesi, a political refugee from Zimbabwe, is walking Pepys Road in search of parking infringements.

When the residents begin to receive postcards of their houses with the sinister message "We want what you have", the relationship between them and their material possessions are placed under the microscope. The appalling Arabella Yount has completely objectified herself in material terms. Roger needs a £1million bonus to meet his family's extravagant requirements. Freddy's father Patrick wishes that he was back in Senegal where life was poorer but simpler. Petunia's grandson Smitty is a Banksy-style artist whose anonymity is a commodity. Zbigniew monitors his share portfolio so that he can return to Poland to set up in business with his father.

Overlying the material relations are typically modern physical threats. The postcards turn nasty. The Kamal's brother is arrested as a terrorist. Freddy is injured playing football. Quentina is interned. Petunia has cancer. Roger is caught up in the banking crisis.

Yet despite these pitfalls, this is a surprisingly warm-hearted book. These tribulations are generally redemptive, underscoring the importance of family, love, friendship and respect. Only Arabella Yount is too far-gone in her materialistic cocoon to be able to contemplate the opportunities that Roger's change in lifestyle may offer, and whilst the fate of the admirable Quentina gives little to be optimistic about, she knows that Zimbabwe will not be ruled by a tyrant forever.

John Lanchester has succeeded in writing an immensely enjoyable State-of-the-Nation novel. The way in which each set of characters' lives impinge on each other only very tangentially is exactly how a modern street works. Admittedly most characters are not sketched in much depth and the novel lacks complexity - yet it is this lightness which captures the superficial freneticness and interconnectivity of modern life so well.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Book Review : Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan 2001)

Is greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York City in 1931, the injuries had proved fatal, then he would be remembered no more than as a colourful actor on the British political stage, whose positive contributions, such as the introduction of Labour Exchanges and Employment insurance in 1909, were more than overwhelmed by his political disasters - such as his advocacy of Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard (against his better judgement and on the advice of John Maynard Keynes, no less) and his emerging opposition to the end of British rule in India.

He was a controversial politician, crossing the house twice and apparently disliked on both sides as a result. Yet, like Gladstone and Lloyd George but probably no others, he could speak. Members filled the chamber to hear his meticulously prepared speeches, his rhetoric usually soaring even if they disagreed with his content.

Yet, Churchill's time came in 1940. He had been consistent in opposing Naziism throughout the 1930s, and the fall of Chamberlain and Churchill's ascent to power is meticulously detailed in this fine autobiography. Chamberlain wanted to hand the Premiership over to Halifax, who, as a peer, demurred. Power passed to Churchill. As Halifax favoured peace with Hitler, who knows what the world would look like today if Halifax had not declined the chance of power.

As Premier, Churchill reinvigorated the faltering war effort, brought in some talented ministers from all sides of the House and from Industry, and galvanised the population with his keynote speeches.Yet for long periods he was absent. Amazingly, in the year from 12 January 1943, he was out of the country for 172 days, plus a further 35 days absent from Parliament due to pneumonia contracted whilst travelling. No-one can doubt the importance of his meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin, nor the bravery of travelling huge distances by air and sea at great risk to himself, yet to be away for half the year displays inordinate confidence in his deputy, Attlee.

Yet the War coalition was surprisingly unpopular. Bye-elections were lost with a surprising frequency, which was a foretaste of the upheaval of 1945. But by this time, Churchill's star had stated to decline. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and his second premiership, marred as it was by ill-health, was undistinguished. His much-delayed departure was anxiously awaited by more than just Eden.

Roy Jenkins' biography is exemplary. Based on copious secondary sources rather than original research, it is an admirable and compendious work of synthesis. Jenkins can turn a phrase almost as well as Churchill himself, though with less extravagance, and the result is a compellingly readable account which presents Churchill as gifted, wildly ambitious, egotistical, infuriating but always touched with greatness. In the final analysis he may be too kind to Churchill's final administration which in my opinion led Britain to a damaging period of stasis, yet overall he is admirably balanced throughout. He is respectful and admiring, yet this is no hagiography. And that is how it should be. Churchill was a flawed character in many ways - a drinker, a gambler, an egotist of frequently flawed judgement, yet when Britain faced its darkest hour, he was the one who to whom we turned, and he delivered.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Book Review : Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber 2000)

There are some books that one underestimates at one's peril.

Mr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for the office as he does every day. Except there is a difference today, as he was made redundant on Friday, and hasn't yet brought himself to tell his wife or family.

Over the course of the day, he meets his son for lunch, he chats with a pornographer, he sees a minor celebrity and gets involved in a bank robbery, reflecting all the time with his interior voice on the nature of his former job, his family, the memory or prospect of sex, or whether the probability of death between purchase and draw of a lottery ticket outweighs the probability of winning the jackpot.

Meanwhile, his life as an office-working, commuting wage-drone is dissected sliver by sliver, and is immediately recognisable to all who trudge up to London each day. "Like most experienced commuters, Mr Phillips has a variety of techniques for seizing somewhere to sit, sneaking around the side of the door and sliding into the jump-seats or barrelling down to the far end of the compartment, through the thickets of passengers, briefcases, newspapers, outstretched legs...The battle for a space prepared you for, was an allegory of the daily struggle. You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. To them that hath shall be given, that was the deal." It is this juxtaposition of the quotidian with the interiorised faux philosophy which makes this book so funny and identifiable.

Mr Phillips is vaguely lustfully following D-list celebrity Clarissa Colingford into a bank, when crash-helmetted shotgun-wielding robbers burst in. As Mr Phillips lies on the floor he reminisces on his previous near-death experiences, mortality rates of lottery-ticket buyers and speculates of the reaction of his family to his death. And then he stands up.

Later, he helps an old lady with her shopping. It turns out that she is the wife of Mr Erith (as the rhyme goes, there are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth), his fanatical old RE teacher. She shows Mr Phillips a book where several sayings, including one by Paul de Man, are embroidered. "Nothing, whether deed, word thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only is a random act whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence." Has Mr Phillips' day been the confirmation or refutation of this and the other observations? Or is Lanchester subtly saying, pace de Man, that as a work of literature "Mr Phillips" means nothing, due to the irrelevance of human matters.

So is it trivial or profound? What is sure is that it is very readable, funny and full of blasts of recognition that this fortysomething office-worker found uncomfortably familiar.

Book Review : The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins (MacMillan 1998)

The prospect of a survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton from the unique perspective of someone who was not only a notable incumbent of this position himself, but also one of our finest writers on the politics of the period in question, seemed replete with possibilities. Firstly, we would be able to chart the evolution of the role from its high-Victorian incarnation in its current form through the troughs in its status during the wars, to its current position second only to that of the Prime Minister himself. Secondly, we could chart the evolution in economic policy through a turbulent century where the economics of Empire and Free Trade were turned on their heels by two world wars, the Great Depression and the rise of the Welfare State. And finally, we could examine the types of person who became Chancellor, and the success or otherwise of these types in the role.

Roy Jenkins' book attempts tentatively to address these questions, but only in the latter is he successful, and then only up to a point. The book's shortcomings, if such they be, are those of organisation and ambition. Certainly one cannot fault the sonorous, slightly orotund flow of Jenkins' prose, of a type that one rarely encounters nowadays, or the clarity of biographical exposition. Parallels with the current credit crisis are of interest, such as the Barings crisis of 1890, where overexposure to Argeninian and Russian Bonds nearly brought Barings Bank, and with it the whole city of London, to its knees - perhaps if this book had been written today and not 14 years ago, these parallels may have been made more overt (although the coincidence of Barings' misfortunes in recent times is underlined).

However, Jenkins has used his own work as frame of reference for determining the scope of the book, which is understandable but unfortunate. He sees Randolph Churchill as a natural continuation from the scope of his work on Gladstone, and Dalton's successors were all the subjects of essays by Jenkins. Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith and Baldwin are the subjects of abbreviated essays as Jenkins has written at length about them elsewhere. Yet these choices encumber the subject as a whole. The modern Chancellorship was the creation of Gladstone and Disraeli, under whose tenures the position was elevated to that of of second in the cabinet and budget day became a national institution. This is only hinted at in the introduction. Instead, the first incumbent we meet is Randolph Churchill, biographically interesting but certainly not the most typical or successful holder of the office, and by concluding with Dalton partway through Atlee's landmark administration, there is a sense that we have ended with a story half-told which, once commenced, should have continued through to Gaitskill at the very least.

The second shortcoming is one of ambition, and this is partly caused by Jenkins organising his material biographically. Chancellors such as Harcourt, Hicks Beach and the Chamberlain half-brothers had more than one term of office, yet their records are looked at in the context of single biographies, so it is very difficult to get a continuous sense of how economic policy evolved in context, or of how the position of Chancellor itself changed over time.

This biographical approach does place emphasis on the type of person who succeeded as Chancellor, yet in the cases of Churchill and Lloyd George you have two of the most influential Chancellors of the 20th Century, but in these critical cases the biographical details relevant to their Chancellorship is skimped over. As a consequence, there is no discussion of the relationship in Asquith's administration between Lloyd George as Chancellor and Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, how Churchill's unemployment pension and labour exchanges complemented Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions, and how this contrasted with Churchill's performance as a Conservative Chancellor fifteen years later. This is a major shortcoming.

This is unfortunate, as a comprehensive overview would be very illuminating. As it is, biographical attention is given to some of the forgotten names of British politics such as C.T Richie and Sir Robert Horne - which is very worthy, and the resulting vignettes are interesting in themselves, but I can't help feeling that this book as a whole should be seen as an opportunity lost.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review : The Time of My Life by Denis Healey (Penguin 1990)

When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancellorship included inflation of 27%, interest rates of 15%, industrial strife and an IMF bailout. What is less familiar is the lover of poetry and theatre, the fluent linguist who broadcast on BBC World Service in French, Italian and German,who made deep and lasting friendships with so many people in so many walks of life around the world. In this splendid political autobiography, Healey attempts to put the record straight, and prove that there was more to him than the political bruiser that he was often taken for.

There is an element of self-justification in how he presents his time in office, but in his biggest battles history looks quite favourably on the outcomes he achieved. His first love was International Affairs, and one senses that the fact that the Foreign Secretaryship eluded him was a cause for regret. As defense secretary he oversaw Britain's withdrawal from unsustainable commitments East of Suez, whilst maintaining a nuclear deterrent with a degree of independence from the United States.

As Chancellor, he claims that if treasury PSBR forecasts had been accurate, he needn't have had to go cap in hand to the IMF - and indeed the loan was repaid by the time that Healey left office. After the traumas of 1975 and 1976 the economy had been dramatically turned round. By 1977, the Balance of Payments was positive, the pound was worth more than $2, interest rates had fallen to 5% and both inflation and unemployment were falling.Yet from that unnaturally propitious position, Callaghan's government persisted with an income policy too far, and the result was the Winter of Discontent. Healey is understandably scathing on the asinity and self-interest of  Union chiefs such as  Moss Evans and Clive Jenkins, who failed to show the leadership of their predecessors and whose dogmatism and lack of foresight indirectly led to twelve years of Thatcherism.One of the great pleasures of this book is its incisive pen-portraits - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Vic Feather are accorded deep respect, but his scorn for those implicated in Labour's implosion following their loss in 1979 is withering.

This great pleasure of this book is to accompany such a warm and engaging companion through his rise from a relatively humble background through Balliol and up through the ranks of the Labour party to the highest offices of state. His perspective from the inside of negotiations with the likes of the Americans on nuclear detterence, is eye-opening, his analysis of the events in which he was involved acute. Yet it is the characters that he has met which make this book special, many names with which one won't be familiar but all described with a warmth when deserved and a brutal dismissal when not. Everyone knows his description of Geoffrey Howe - who he liked and respected- from the House of Commons, yet not nearly as savage as his dismissal of his old foe Tony Benn in this book: "It is ironic that Tony Benn's ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind - the uranium mine in Namibia that he authorised as Energy Secretary which helps to support apartheid...and an aircraft [Concorde] which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fairs are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers." Like the man himself, insightful, uncompromising but ultimately fair.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book Review : Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins 1992)

History has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketing inflation and the turmoil of the seventies. The circumstances of his resignation were strange, the only British Prime Minister last century to leave office at a time of his own choosing, when not forced to do so by political events, illness or electoral defeat. The infamous lavender list left a nasty taste in a country recently rocked by Poulson.

Yet it the achievements of Wilson's governments were significant. They represented a sea-change from the previous administration (13 of Macmillan's cabinet had gone to Eton) which was much more in tune with a rapidly changing society. Wilson's famous words on the "white heat of the technical revolution" stuck a chord with the voters, and Labour was swept to power in 1964 with a mandate to modernise. Whilst the its attempt to direct investment more efficiently through a National Plan created by the new Department of Economic Affairs was a failure, its attempt to create a fairer society through the expansion of university education was undoubtedly of lasting significance. Capital punishment was abolished, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the Lord Chancellor's censorship of the theatre was swept away. Later events were to show that the ideas behind In Place of Strife were undoubtedly correct, and the subsequent emasculation of the Trade Union movement under Thatcher indicate that the Trade Union movement's opposition to the White Paper was misplaced.

Wilson's administration redefined the nature of Britain's armed forces, reduced defence spending from 8% to 5% of GDP in keeping with Britain's post-colonial role, whilst withdrawing from traditional commitments "East of Suez". Perhaps his greatest achievement was to keep British troops out of Vietnam despite intense pressure from a United States government on whom Britain was dependent for economic support during recurring balance of payments crises. Only a funambulist with the skill of Wilson could have achieved this balancing act.

Yet Wilson's tragedy came in two electoral shocks - his unexpected defeat in 1970, and his equally unexpected victory in 1974. He was shaken to the core by his loss, and when he regained power in 1974 the drive and attention to detail was no longer there. Pimlott shows conclusively that Wilson was planning his resignation almost as soon as he had taken power, thus dispelling rumours of lurking scandals or MI5 conspiracies to unseat him.

Pimlott's is a classic political biography: comprehensive, detailed, sympathetic but not uncritical. He presents Wilson as a highly capable administrator, whose mercurial brilliance allowed him to paper over the deep divisions between right and left in the labour party. He felt deeply betrayed by his protégée Anthony Wedgwood Benn's swing to the left, and the widening chasm between him and the Jenkinsites of the right contributed to his deepening sense of disillusionment. Wilson was no ideologue, but Pimlott gives a sense that in Wilson's final administration he no longer believed that he was capable of transforming Britain into the fairer, more efficient and better run state that he had worked for all his life.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Review : State of Emergency - The Way We Were : Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane 2010)

I was born in 1963, so the period covered in this book, 1970-1974, coincides with my first proper memories of a world outside my family. I don't remember the election of 1970, but, being brought up in an SNP-supporting household I do remember Margo McDonald winning Govan in 1973, and the SNP's subsequent successes in the 1974 elections. Decimalisation impacted the sixpence in my pocket directly, and what schoolboy could forget the excitement of having to huddle round candles during the power cuts of the miners' strike and the three-day week.

My perspective was Scottish. The Ibrox disaster (dismissed in this book in a sentence, in one of the few misjudgements of perspective) was traumatic as my father was at the game - waiting with my mother for him to return home from the game as news of fatalities mounted will always stay with me. Jimmy Reid only became a  hero once I was old enough to understand the nature of the UCS work-in, and how it differed from ordinary industrial disputes. However, the horrors unfolding in Northern Ireland were distant, despite Glasgow perching precariously on the edge of the same sectarian precipice.

My memories of the period are patchwork, and necessarily underinformed. I remember Slade and The Goodies, but not Lord Lambton, and I was too young to understand the fuss about Poulson. Yet it made the experience of reading this book different from that of reading its splendid predecessors, Never Had It So Good and White Heat. With respect to  these, the past is definitely a foreign country as one has little context with which to refer except for what one has read in books. However, reading State of Emergency allowed me to affirm my experiences and to better understand the context of the events which had unfolded around me.

When discussing the book with a friend, he said that it was too soon for a proper perspective on the events of the seventies, but I don't agree. What Sandbrook has achieved is a masterly summery of the major movements of the period - political events, social, cultural - and brought it together in a synthesis which is highly engaging. There is something Tragicomic about the Heath administration, and Sandbrook manages to capture Heath's gaucheness and rudeness (of the Leader of an Orchestra who said "if you don't stop being so rude to us, Sir Edward, we might start following your instructions") but is also willing to give him credit for much which is today forgotten.

It is a top down book and despite its length it is of necessity superficial in a lot of ways - his earlier books contrast sharply with David Kynaston's bottom-up surveys of the forties and fifties in Austerity Britain and Family Britain which are largely compiled from dairy observations and Mass Observation. Sandbrook does use such sources (the frequent references to diaries of upper-class reactionary James Lees-Milne are particularly entertaining and illuminating, calling Captain Mark Phillips, for instance, "barely a gentleman") but more of his sources are from a dizzying variety of books, newspapers, government papers, film and television. It is the skill with which he manages this mass of information which impresses. Above all, he achieves a nuance of tone which allows him to switch seamlessly from high political drama to carnage in Ulster to the permissive society and Woman's Lib, whilst maintaining a uniformity of clarity, humour and insight. It is quite brilliantly done, and I look forward to further volumes.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Theatre Review : The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Rowley - Young Vic (dir Joe Hill-Gibbins 6/2/12)

Charlotte Lucas and Jessica Raine 
There's something very modern about blood-soaked Jacobean tragedies that make them so very condusive to modern adaptations. Maybe its the moral ambiguity surrounding the heroes or the amorality of the villains that resonates so very well with our post-modern age.

In The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Beatrice-Joanna (Jessica Raine)  is being forced into loveless marriage to Alonso (Duncan Wisbey), so she asks her lover Alsemero (Kobna Holbrook-Smith) to despatch her husband-to-be. He demurs, but scrofulus De Flores (Daniel Cerqueira)  has the hots for Beatrice and is willing to do anything for her. His price is her virtue which he duly takes, leaving Beatrice with a problem on her eventual wedding-night. Fortunately, she can fall back on that old renaissance stand-by beloved of Shakespeare, the bed trick, though unfortunately her maid Diaphanta (Charlotte Lucas) enjoys performing the trick a bit too well.

This is The Changeling supercharged - urgent, sexy and messy. The audience are right on top of the performers in the Young Vic's Jerwood space, and can feel the scratches of this tactile production. Beatrice is sassy, self-willed, vulnerable. You can see why she has so many men in her thrall. De Florio breathes heavily as he watches her, his lank hair dropping greasily over his scabby face. Beatrice can't hide her repulsion as she realises she must kiss him in order to get her way. Meanwhile in the subplot,  Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Antonio dons madman's guise to gain access to doctor Alibius's wife Isabella (Charlotte Lucas again), incarcerated in a madhouse under the lecherous eye of Alex Beckett as Lollio, rubbing his truncheon lubriciously.

Come the bed-trick on the wedding night, Alonso and Diaphanta smear each other with raspberry jelly (as one does), the resulting sheets giving notice of the truth of Beatrice's virginity. But as everything starts to unravel, this wonderful production finally starts to lose its grip as the jelly starts to fly courtesy of those wronged (which by now was the majority of the cast). It was the only bum note in the evening, as such a taut production required a  denouement which was earthier, more tangible, slightly less symbolic. Up until that point I had enjoyed this gripping production immensely, and some sniggers from the audience suggested that my doubts were not alone. But full marks to Director Joe Hill-Gibbins for a production that shocked, challenged but above all entertained right the way to the end.

Book Review - Vanished Kingdoms : The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Allen Lane 2011)

When I was a child in the 1970's, the map of the Europe seemed immutable. Ongoing decolonialisation granted statehood to pre-existing territories of the major European powers, and new states had sprung forth from violent conflict in far-flung corners of the globe, but Europe's boundaries, fixed in the aftermath of the Second World War, were constant. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovia. Europe's states suddenly became fragile entities, as centrifugal forces started to impinge on even long-established Western states like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. The old certainties had vanished, history had not ended.

Yet this is no new phenomenon - thirty years of post-war stability is the exception in European history, not the rule. The map of Europe has been like a kaleidoscope, borders shifting as the wheel of time turns. Yet when we analyse these patterns, so often our perspective is shaped through the prism of contemporary states, so when we look at Prussia, it is through the context of modern Germany, or Burgundy through that of modern France. What Norman Davies has done in this brilliantly conceived and executed book is to look at snapshots of European history from the perspective of those states which have failed to survive the test of time.

The result is a startling series of cameos.What is the relationship between medieval Aragon and modern Catalonia? How did a remote region of what is now Poland and Russia give its name to the State from which modern Germany sprang (and why does its name no longer exist)? Why are there two separate Galicias in Europe, and are they linked? (No, they aren't). Why did the mayfly state of Carpatho-Ukraine exist for just one day?

The fortunes of states ebb and flow. Who in the early 1980s could have envisaged that by 1991 the Soviet Union would have imploded? Yet its demise is no more surprising than that of medieval Byzantium, or of the mighty Dukedom of Burgundy. We are left with faint traces, palimpsests of what went before - Byzantine complexity, Prussian blue (which would have been Brandenburg Blue if it had been synthesised in Berlin five years earlier).

Fifteen vanished kingdoms are analysed, each in three parts. The first gives a contemporary context in the form of a short travelogue (necessary for some of the more obscure parts of Eastern Europe). Then the rise and fall of the state in historical terms is described, followed by the memory sites, the cultural traces of the vanished kingdoms which resonate to this day. We progress according to a rough chronology, and in the earlier chapters there is a slight tendency for the historical sections to resolve down to unfamiliar names of kings, places and battles, but the broader contexts largely offset this. By the time we come to more familiar historical territory (for me anyway) this is no longer an issue.

Davies attempts to analyse the reasons why kingdoms vanish. Some are absorbed or destroyed by bigger neighbours, some disintegrate from within. Others merge together to make a greater whole. Looking at the examples of Piedmont-Savoy, Aragon and the Soviet Union, he puts forward the case that Kingdoms which come together from distinct constituent parts have a greater tendency to split apart over time. Small nations such as Estonia can exist successfully under the umbrellas of Nato and the European Union, so he believes that the separatist forces acting on the United Kingdom will one day win through, forcing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales down the path trodden early last century by Ireland. Whether you agree with this analysis or not, this compelling, beautifully written book is vital reading for all with an interest in European history or contemporary politics alike.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Theatre Review : She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith - Olivier Theatre (dir Jamie Lloyd 30/1/12)

The plot of She Stoops to Conquer is as insanely clever as theatre has ever devised - Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) would like his daughter to be married to Marlow, the son of an old friend, so invites him to his house. However, Hardcastle's loutish step-son Toby Lumpkin (David Fynn) intercepts him, and tells him that Hardcastle's home where he will stay the night is in fact an inn. Marlow has an unusual impediment, in that he can freely chat up women of a lower class but is completely tongue-tied in the presence of ladies of quality. Which makes him fortunate to think that he is staying in an inn, and that Hardcastle's daughter Kate (Katherine Kelly) is a serving girl.

Goldsmith's satire is very effective. In mistaking Hardcastle's house for an Inn, and Hardcastle for an Innkeeper, Marlow and his companion Hastings (John Heffernan) treat both with the disrespect to be expected at the time, and it is still today fresh and funny. As is typical in plays of the time, Hardcastle's wife (overplayed deliciously by Sophie Thompson) has aspirations above her country station, and all the humour derives from the confusions of upper versus lower class, and rural simplicity versus urban sophistication.

The humour is drawn out by the cast quite rightly overplaying everything - this is not a play to benefit from subtlety. Marlow switches easily from tongue-tied lover to skirt-chasing rogue, whilst Kate moves with equal facility from charming young daughter to sluttish serving girl.

Jamie Lloyd's production uses the Olivier's revolving stage to great effect as he switches seamlessly from inside to outside Hardcastle Hall, the only downside being the rather twee song and dance numbers which fill the gaps during the set changes.

After a slow start (this was the first preview) both cast and audience got into the rhythms of the humour and the cast seemed to feed on the laughs they were receiving from the stalls. By the end, part of the audience was on its feet, and, if that was perhaps an overreaction, it was certainly a most enjoyable production of a play that still retains its freshness more than 200 years since its first production.

Theatre Review : The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett - Apollo Theatre (dir Christopher Luscombe 26/1/12)

King George III, one of the more decent monarchs to have graced the British throne, was unfortunate to suffer from a recurring illness - probably porphyria - which manifested itself in prolonged outbursts of what appeared to be madness. Alan Bennett's play studies the impact on the King of the first such outbreak, the barbaric methods used to try to cure it and how it affected the court politics of the day. Being written by Alan Bennett, it is a story told with humour, pathos and sensitivity, but also hard-edged and shocking.

Of course, most people are familiar with this story today, largely as a result of the success of this play when it was first staged.There is a risk in reviving such a well-loved work, which has successfully made the transition into an equally well-loved film with a much-missed national treasure in the title role. The lead part is so pivotal that comparisons with Nigel Hawthorne are unavoidable - yet such is the power of David Haig's performance as George III that within a few minutes I was totally involved in his performance and not attempting to make any comparisons.

I was once in a restaurant before a show and David Haig was eating with some companions on a table nearby, and he is one of these people whose charisma fills the room. Yet in many of the roles in which I have seen at the theatre or on television, he has played characters who are either bumptious and officious, or downtrodden. This may be testament to his acting ability, but neither types really allow his natural charisma to shine through.

This role, however, has put that right. Haig dominates the stage as a monarch should, even one beset by this dreadful malady, which makes his suffering as he loses his reason and is beset by blistering and binding by his doctors all the more poignant. He is well-supported by the large cast, especially Beatie Edney in the unattractive role of the monarch's plain but much-loved wife, Queen Charlotte and by Clive Francis as Dr Francis Willis.

The play itself looks a bit baggy in places. There is too much of Fox and Pitt and the machinations of the would-be Prince Regent, too much history lesson and not enough characterisation of the lesser roles. Parallels with contemporary politics are spurious and forced. But this is all about one man,  and the play comes alive when contemplating the true nature of kinghood, born to the purple, right down to his porphyria-stained urine.

Book Review - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Virago Press 2006)

It's 1947, and lives are reaching out for normality after the dislocation of war. For some this is difficult, unable to replicate the adrenaline rush of falling bombs and saving lives. For others, the relationships which made sense in the unnatural intensity of the war years no longer provide security and satisfaction. 

Sarah Waters' novel follows the interlinked lives of five people in these dismal years. Helen and Viv work in a dating agency. Helen lives with the sophisticated Julia, whilst Viv has been having a long-term affair with Reggie. Viv's brother Duncan works in a factory and lives with Mr Mundy, but is hiding a secret in his past. Kay lives alone and walks the streets without purpose. But why does Viv become so animated when she sees Kay walking in the street?

Structurally, this book is a bit like a classic detective novel. You are introduced to the story in the middle at the scene of crime, and the action unravels both forwards towards dénouement and backwards as the criminal and their motivations are revealed. In 1947, you learn about the characters, but subsequent sections are set in 1944 and 1941 and as we rewind backwards we find out why the characters are who they are and act how they act.

Sarah Waters is adept at creating a sense of time and place, and her picture of wartime London is highly evocative. The ebbing and flowing of relationships is sketched out with care and sensitivity. Yet there is something at the heart of this novel which didn't fully work for me. It's as if it were somehow not a true story of a series of relationships, but a technical exercise in showing how a book about relationships could be written in reverse chronology. 

Perhaps that's unfair, perhaps one is just too conditioned to the unflowering of the plot, of the novelist's relentless drive towards a conclusion. Certainly, there are many novels where one has appreciated the storyline but the ending leaves one disappointed, and by this device of reverse chronology Sarah Waters has avoided having to finish with her characters facing the humdrum normality of peacetime at the end of the book. But because of the structure of the book, we know who survived the falling bombs, the back-street abortions, and the slow reveal of why Helen has silk pyjamas and Viv wants to give Kay a ring does not provide an adequate motive force for the book as a whole - which is unfortunate, as many sections are compelling and the period and interrelationships are delineated with such care.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review - The American Future : A History by Simon Schama (The Bodley Head 2008)

In 2008, America stood on the cusp of a change which even just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. Barack Obama, a black American, had a realistic chance of being elected President of the United States. His vision of change was providing an inspiring alternative both to a discredited Republican regime and Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party machine. Establishment politics had failed - the long years of easy credit and economic boom had come crashing to an end, whilst American troops struggled to make an impact against nebulous foes in Iraq and Afghanistan. If ever there was a potential political watershed, this was it.

Simon Schama's TV series and book were an attempt to take a long perspective on America's most pressing issues, mixing historical aperçus with contemporary analysis to brilliant effect.

When West Point Academy for officers was founded, the study of French was compulsory for the practical reason that many of the textbooks were written in French. But the principles of mathematics and engineering that were instilled allowed the Army to play a major role in the Civil Engineering of the new nation. They helped create, for instance, the levées that protected New Orleans until contemporary negligence contributed to their breach  in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Switch to the retired General who, when asked if the Army could have done more to fix the infrastructure of Iraq, said that that is not what the Army is for.The Union's success in the American Civil War was largely due to the success of West Point graduate Montgomery Meigs' clear-headed and incorruptible approach to logistical management. Switch to Iraq, where "Construction companies awarded no-bid contracts had bungled the job after pocketing front-loaded operational budgets". No explicit contrast is made - none is needed.

For a country founded on immigration, America's attitude to new immigrants has often been ambiguous. Discrimination against Chinese workers in the West is contrasted with American migrants to Mexico in what is now Texas. The first part of the American history is the search for land, as settlers pushed further and further west, and the American army made gains to the South. Treaties with American Indian tribes are torn up with impunity by Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Mexican war. Rewind to Schama's meeting earlier in the book with Generals Freddy Valenzuela and Ricardo Sanchez, all-American heroes in a Hispanic military café in San Antonio, Texas.

For the American history is a complex history, ebbing and flowing from highest ideals to naked greed and corruption. What Schama manages to do is to select examples that not only encapsulate how America came to be what it is today, but also to underline its complexity. He moves easily back and forward through the history of the Meigs family and the history of the nation, but eschews easy answers. As the past four years have shown, the problems that contemporary America faces are too deep-seated simply to be solved by well-crafted words, but this book is a fine attempt to shed some understanding on its most intractable issues.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review : The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago Press 2009)

It may be an exaggeration to say that British novelists write of little else but class, but it is certainly the case that a number of significant recent novels have examined  class-incompatibility and the decline of the English gentry over the course of the 20th Century.  Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child” charts the decline of one part of a wealthy family through the rise and fall of its poet-son’s reputation. The crux of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”  arises essentially out of a sense of class-based inferiority. Meanwhile, Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” charts another gentry-class family’s decline in the immediate aftermath of the second world war through the unusual medium of a ghost story.

As a child, Faraday had visited the Ayres family at Hundreds Hall where his mother was in service. Now that he is a doctor in the local town, he is called to examine Betty, a young servant, and strikes up a friendship with the members of the family. Mrs Ayres is now widowed, and has two surviving children, her eldest daughter having died from diphtheria. Her surviving children are now in their twenties. Roderick was badly burned during the war, whilst Caroline is rather plain and unmarried. Hundreds Hall itself is badly in need of repair – the income from the estate has diminished, and financial anxieties are crowding in on Roderick who has taken over the running of the Estate since the death of his father.

Betty has claimed that the Hall frightens her, but there is no evidence of any malign force until a dinner party where Gyp, Caroline’s docile Labrador, suddenly savages a neighbour’s child. After this, strange occurrences take place with increasing frequency. Roderick is convinced there is an evil spirit in the house – but could this just be the strain of his injuries and the family finances taking their toll? Mrs Ayres agrees there may be a spirit – could this be her beloved daughter trying to reach her?

Meanwhile, Faraday has struck up a tentative relationship with an uncertain Caroline, and is becoming more involved in the problems of the house. His medical experience is invaluable as he deals with the consequences of the strange manifestations in the house. As an educated man, he is sure there is a rational explanation for what is occurring. Could it be psychoneurosis, or has Roddy's subliminal self somehow broken loose from his conscious personality and returned to the house, as his colleague Seeley suggests?

The narrative is told from Faraday's perspective, but could he be more implicated more than he reveals in the narrative? Before each major crisis, he has been in the vicinity of the house, sometimes drinking, always upset and on the morning afterwards has suffered bad night’s sleep? Who is the “you” to whom Caroline refers? He is not entirely a pleasant character, having a temper and a suspicious nature, and has clearly not got over the perceived disadvantages of his poor upbringing. He is getting more frustrated with the barriers to his relationship with Caroline. Has he fully resolved his feelings towards the family for whom his mother spent time in service?  A mischievous spirit or a rational explanation? - Sarah Waters leaves conclusions to the reader.

Coming from the doctor’s perspective, the book is written in flat, businesslike prose. Description  is kept to a minimum, yet the time and place are brilliantly evoked. The sparseness means that when the crises occur, the description of them is all the more shocking – and I can guarantee that once you get into the book it is so gripping that it almost impossible to put down. Yet the class-based ambiguities at the heart of it mean that this is no mere page-turner but an extremely sensitive, thought-provoking and intriguing story.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film Review - The Artist (dir Michel Hazanavicius)

Let's be honest. This film is a predictable piece of romantic schmaltz filled with a compendium of some of the biggest movie clichés of all time, complete with a cutesy dog. It's a rehack of the well-worn tale of the fading star being eclipsed by his pretty young protegé, who belatedly comes to appreciate what he had done for her. Not only that, but it's silent and shot in black and white - did anyone mention that? And d'know what - despite the silent movie gimmick being hyped beyond belief, despite every scene being telegraphed beforehand and despite anthropomorphic animals in cinema making me cringe - despite all that it's absolutely wonderful and well worth all the noise.

Part of the reason for its success is the sheer élan of the film-making. This is a labour of love and it shows. As soon as one sees the distinctive art-deco credits  faded at the edges, one is reminded of so many films of the late twenties and early thirties. And this continues throughout. Almost every scene elicits a thrill of recognition, even if it is for recognition of a well-worn cliché. 

Being primarily a silent movie gives it great scope for sound-related coups de théatre which Hazanavicius exploits to great effect. After the opening dance number the music ends and we expect to be engulfed by the audience's applause, but instead we are envelopped by silence. I note that the Alliance of Woman Film Journalists have voted "The sound of glass clinking on the table" from this film as their unforgettable movie moment of the year, and without giving the game away I quite agree.

Jean Dujardin as fading star George Valentin is superb, a hint of vulnerability always at the corner of his twinkling eye, and Bérénice Bejo radiates exactly the charisma that one would expect of up-and-coming movie icon Peppy Miller. Both are nearly eclipsed by a pitch-perfect John Goodman hamming it up for all he is worth as the producer Al Zimmer, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Uggie as Jack, a dog of acuity, insight and undeniable attractiveness. A lot of nonsense has been written about his eligibility for Best Supporting Actor awards. Of course he is simply fortunate that he has been trained well and looks cute - just like many of his human counterparts.

There are so many allusions, references and in-jokes that this is probably a film best appreciated by dedicated cinéastes, but its sheer ebullience makes it a pleasure for all who enjoy romances, films for film's sake and who don't need a raft of flashes, guns and special effects. Forget 3-D, silent films might be the future.

Book Review : A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes (Picador 1990)

On first sight, this is not so much a novel as a collection of disparate short stories linked by recurring motifs but not linked by any big idea or common themes. But Julian Barnes has insisted that the book was conceived as a whole, and in actual fact you need to stand quite far back to appreciate the architecture of the whole.

This is a history of the world from Noah until the end of time. In the first chapter we encounter a cynical, all-knowing woodworm which has stowed away on the Ark, decrying Noah and his drunken exploits. In the final chapter, we discover an afterlife in which all desires are satiated to such an extent that the dead eventually tire of the state of bliss that they exist in, and opt for nothingness instead. In the intervening 8 1/2 chapters, we encounter the woodworm gnawing through the legs of the throne of the Bishop of Besançon,  trying to eat the letters sent by an actor in the South American jungle and possibly destroying the remains of the Ark on Mount Ararat. Reindeer which on the Ark had a sense of foreboding are buried in the fallout from a nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, the Ark recurs in the guise of an Achille Lauro-type liner stormed by Arab terrorists, who execute the prisoners of the unclean nations two by two, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, some logs tied together in the South American jungle and a possibly delusionary craft in the Pacific.

The overarching theme is similar to that of his recent Booker-prize winning novel A Sense of an Ending. It is the fragility and unreliability of the historical narrative and how it is framed by the perspective of the narrator. The woodworm, who, as a destroyer of narratives par excellence exemplifies Barnes' theme, relates his worm's eye view of a biblical narrative that is unreliable per se. The deaths of the terrorists deprive Franklin Hughes of the justification of his behaviour and his girlfriend never talks to him again. Kath Ferris's journey across the Torres Strait could have been a fantasy or delusion - or the consequence of sunstroke. The story of the Medusa is the story of the survivors.

There are two significant exceptions to these stories about the fragility of history. The first is the tragic story of the ship St Louis, which sailed to the United States carrying 937 Jewish refugees but was denied access at numerous ports in the Americas, finally returning to Antwerp. This is a shocking fact: only the ultimate fate of its passengers as they are dispersed once again throughout Europe is unknown. 

And then in the half-chapter, Parenthesis, Barnes finally confronts the reader directly and brings everything together. In the midst of a disquisition on the nature of love, he states that "History isn't what happened - history is just what historians tell us." They impose a pattern, plan, connections. 
   "The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn   for a few centuries then fade; stories, old stories that seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections... We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them."

As short stories, each Chapter would stand up well by itself. Written in a variety of styles, voices and tones, they are exemplars of the short-storyteller's art. Yet don't let the engaging nature of many of these tales and the accessibility of Barnes' style deceive you - this is a deadly serious and hugely ambitious book.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review : Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre 2011)

1785, and the French state is rotten, putrefying. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is summoned to a decaying Versailles to be given a task by a government minister, the clearance of the cemetery of les Innocents by Les Halles in Paris, which is full to overflowing and filling its surrounds with stench and disease. Apparently there is an elephant somewhere in Versailles.

The elephant is the impending French Revolution, whose presence looms over this book whilst only ever being acknowledged in the prophetic street graffiti of the mysterious Bêche. And, as wide-awake readers will note Jean-Baptiste is preparing the way for the upheaval, and that "Baratter" means to agitate vigorously, they will realise that we are in the realm of complex extended historical metaphor. However, don't let that put you off - this is page-turning book, cleverly written, engaging and entertaining, and one can enjoy immensely it without all the cleverness. But dig away at the surface like Baratter's men from Valenciennes, and so much more opens up...

The title announces the theme: purification - of the graveyard, of the district, of the state, of la pute autrichiènne with whom Baratte will live. A day is coming when the last trompette-stop of the organ will sound and the innocents shall rise up from their graves. Jean-Baptiste travels to Valenciennes via Amiens (incidentally home to relics of John the Baptist) to employ Flemish miners, working men, simple but loyal, to excavate the bones of les Innocents and transport them to the catacombs below Rue d'Enfer. Miller captures the sights and smells of this unpleasant task in brisk, tight elegant sentences whilst continuing to toy with us.

Salome-like, the naked daughter of Jean-Baptiste's hosts tries to sever his head. Fortunately he is rescued by all-seeing Marie before he has shed too much blood. Call on Dr Guillotin who has expertise in such cases. It can be possible to over-interpret. As fire rages all around them, Jean-Baptiste finds Flemish miner Block (=stone = pierre =Peter??), gives him a key and tells him to take his followers to the river.

As a novel, it is not without its flaws. Structurally it is unkempt, events occur for little apparent reason, Jean-Baptiste is the only character of interest.Yet as an entertainment, an exciting read, historically astute, well-written and playful, it excels. Since finishing it, I've found myself musing on the theme and the apocalyptic parallels it develops, which is worthy tribute. And the elephant? - it was lying dead in Versailles, rotting away.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Review : Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes (Picador 1987)

In his recent Booker Prizewinning The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes' middle-aged character tries to make sense of a pivotal event in his life many years ago. Barnes had written about an elderly character looking back on a life once before in Staring at the Sun, one of his earlier works written in 1985, and the difference between the two books is instructive. Both are massively ambitious. Whereas The Sense of an Ending explores the nature of history, Staring at the Sun tries to tell whether you can "tell a good life from a bad life, a wasted life."

Jean Sargent did not lead an exciting life. Brought up before the second world war, she drifted into a loveless marriage. It was only the prospect of her son's birth that made her leave her husband and drift around various poorly paid jobs and rented flats. Looking back on her long life from a vantage point in 2020, she reflects on her dodgy Uncle Leslie, who fled to America during the war, and fighter-pilot Tommy Prosser, who was grounded when he lost his bottle.

She looks back on bringing up her son, Gregory, whose existential crisis causes him to interrogate the General Purposes Computer's Absolute Truth module why he is afraid of death. And she reflects on travelling in her middle age, when she went to China. There someone asks how you can tell good jade from bad and is told "you look at it and by looking you can tell its qualities."

There are two main problems with this book. The first is that it is over-determined, a bit too writerly. Significant metaphors recur with a clunk. As a child, Jean sees a print of a mink with the caption that "the mink is excessively tenacious of life," and the phrase returns to Jean at all of life's major junctures. Similarly aeroplanes - Uncle Leslie takes her on an aeroplane to cure her whooping cough; Tommy Prosser gives the book its title by flying into the sun; Gregory makes model aircraft that cannot fly.

The second is a problem of tone in the final section of the book. After two largely realist parts which follow Jean in her youth and as a mother, we suddenly fast-forward to 2020. The General Purposes Computer is a fine example of why writers must always take care when writing about the future, since Barnes obviously hadn't envisaged as all-encompassing a vehicle for the sum of human knowledge as the Internet. Gregory's interrogation of the GPC makes for interesting intellectual cut and thrust, but it is out of tune with the rest of the  book.

By the end, as Gregory and his mother embark on an aeroplane and all the metaphors come together, one feels as if one has completed a particularly complex intellectual jigsaw and not a work of literature. This is a shame, as the book is beautifully written, as is always the case with Julian Barnes, and genuinely thought-provoking. However, when compared with The Sense of an Ending one can see how the mature Barnes has dealt with equally weighty issues with so much more subtlety yet directness.