Tag Archives: books

On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

Amongst the lesser pleasures of parenthood should be numbered the opportunity, not only to re-visit the favourite books of one’s own early childhood — those fictive universes invariably now out-of-scale and slightly unconvincing, like some once-familiar infant school encountered in later life, the ceilings far too low, the chairs too small, the prospect out the window disenchanted, no water-dish put out for the headmaster’s gentle ambling dog, presumably now dead these thirty-something years or more — but also — perhaps even more so, because less obviously blurred with the stuff of memory and mortality — the opportunity to encounter as an adult the children’s books one missed in childhood. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is very much a case in point.

Some children’s books are, admittedly, too much like hard work for the old. I spent most of 2006-07, for instance, reading Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The experience was, looking back on it dispassionately, akin to that of some seventh-century anchorite walled up in his desert fastness, having bid farewell to the world outside forever, resigned to mouthing that hieratic, unearthly liturgy through dry lips — reading while the light held, reciting when it failed — in those early months perhaps seeking to understand the words he enunciates, later meekly accepting them, finally seeking only to appease his sometimes angry, often capricious but eternally untiring Listener.

Yet although I expended more time, effort and persistence on my examinations of this slim volume than I had, for instance, on any text related to my own doctoral dissertation, the Tiger‘s essential mysteries did not, in the end, reveal themselves to me. Almost certainly, I was not worthy of them. Continue reading

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On Richard Overy’s ‘The Morbid Age’

not very morbid at all

The research, erudition, earnestness and effort that went into Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars might well have made up three or four striking and worthwhile books. Instead Overy has given a single volume, 521 pages long, in many ways highly unsatisfactory.

In The Morbid Age, Overy seeks to demonstrate that in Britain during the period 1919-1939 ‘a strong presentiment of impending disaster […] touched many areas of public discourse’. Although the economic slump of the late 1920s and the rise of Hitler constituted ‘real historical dramas’ — to which, presumably, at least a degree of pessimism would seem an appropriate response — he tracks this ‘culture of crisis’ back to the 1920s, and indeed the period prior to the Great War, where — he implies — they may have been less appropriate and, hence, more similar to the ‘phantoms and extrapolated fantasies’ he detects in our own time: ‘how often in the last few years has the “defence of our way of life” or “the defence of democracy” been mobilized as an argument, as if they really were endangered from within or without,’ he laments early on, although the bracing parallel seemingly proposed is, in the end, never quite followed up — a serious disappointment jostling amid a crowd of less profound ones.

For the first few chapters of The Morbid Age, minor annoyances provide a distraction from more fundamental flaws. Let’s start with the editing. In his Acknowledgements, Overy thanks his ‘new editor in New York’ who has ‘rightly asked me to make the “Englishness” of the text more accessible and has made it a better book as a result’. The most obvious fruit of this enterprise is the proliferation of those banal and bleakly reductive explanatory tropes so beloved of trans-Atlantic middlebrow journalism, whereby, upon introduction, Albert Schweitzer must always be ‘the distinguished missionary Albert Schweitzer’, Arnold Toynbee ‘the historian Arnold Toynbee’, Siegfried Sassoon ‘the poet Siegfried Sassoon’, Wyndham Lewis ‘the futurist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis’, and so on, ad infinitum and before long also ad absurdum, so that by the time one encounters ‘the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’, ‘the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes’ and ‘the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Karl Marx’ — the dictator Adolph Hitler is, I think, uniquely honoured in being allowed to enter the text unadorned with an explanatory adjective — one begins to wonder whether readers to whom the names ‘Hegel’ and ‘Marx’ suggest very little might actually be better off setting out on what might well be a rather long intellectual journey with the help of something other than Overy’s bulky, dense yet often meandering survey. Continue reading

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Ten memorable books

ten memorable books and a cat

As someone who’s considerably less interested in producing a blog, in the conventional sense, than in imagining what, say, the LRB might be like if it only had a single, regrettably lazy, easily-distracted and discernably right-of-centre contributor — nothing wrong with a ‘normal’ blog, by the way, except that I’m simply not cut out for writing one — the very idea of ‘memes’ sends me lurching towards the ‘delete’ button.

On the other hand, reading Gareth Williams’ fascinating post here, with a special definitional supplement here, right before embarking on a half-hour, book- and iPod-free bus journey — and recalling a similar exercise by my old friend Barry Campbell, although I think that was on Facebook rather than Barry’s excellent blog, and hence, perhaps, as unrecoverable as it is now unlinkable — was a recipe for the sort of me-too response out of which the whole obligatory, mock-convivial and hence charmless ‘meme’ thing doubtless originated. And anyway, however much some of our American cousins may raise an eyebrow at this, it really is still too hot in London to think properly.

Hence, without much apology, here are, as per Gareth’s example, ten books which ‘have most influenced [my] thinking, that [I] have found [myself] referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing’, complete with minimal justification. To the extent that they are ordered in any purposeful way, it’s (roughly) the sequence in which I encountered them.

1. The Book of Common Prayer (various editions). Christened into the American Episcopal Church soon after birth, educated at a refulgently eccentric Episcopal parochial school, an irregular attendee at services during my lengthy spell at Trinity College, Cambridge, confirmed (rather belatedly) into the Church of England in 1996 and now a conventionally devout if not excessively frequent communicant, the liturgy of the worldwide Anglian communion has always been there in the background, incanting its timeless commentary in the face of a lifetime of change.

The Psalms, in particular, are the most perfect poetry we have, encompassing every human mood. Gloomy or flirtatious, contrite or more than ready to smite someone — I’ve returned to the Psalms in all these states, and never failed to find the words I so badly needed to hear. No, more than any other, the Book of Common Prayer is, to crib Gareth’s formulation, a book I’ll never truly ‘finish’.

2. The Collected Poems of W.H. Auden (1945). Heaven knows, as a poet and as a man, Auden had defects. Continue reading

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Worth the wait: ‘Rome and the Barbarians’

Rome and the Barbarians

As a child — shy, bookish, obscurely discontented with my lot and fairly certain that something more interesting lay elsewhere, chronologically if not geographically speaking — there was little I loved more than curling up in an armchair in some half-lit room, seeking escape from the supposed inadequacy of ordinary things through the pages of really good picture-book.

My sense of ‘really good’ was, admittedly, eclectic and gappily critical. At the time, so immaculate was my intellectual innocence that I accepted as mere point-and-shoot accuracy, for instance, the hard-won Neo-Romantic dreaminess of Bill Brandt’s photography in Literary Britain (1951) without consciously noting its function as both commentary and criticism of that other picture-book favourite of mine, an enormous volume of photographic images of the Second World War, a topic broadly construed as taking in everything from Nanking to the Berlin Blockade, the not-yet-revivable glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth co-existing as a matter of fact alongside incomprehensible if unforgettable visions of burning cities, tangles of broken and tortured bodies — a rich if unruly grammar of visual imagery not entirely tamed, if memory serves, by the broadly reassuring commentary of its post-war American editors on what was, at least in the mid 1970s, America’s ‘good’ war, to be recalled and even celebrated in the context of more recent and problematic conflicts. Or so I remember thinking at the time. (Perhaps, on reflection, I wasn’t as innocent as all that.)

But of course there was more to my canon of picture books, even in those days, than moody mid-century photography. Continue reading

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Briefly Noted: Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts

Night Haunts front cover

Why write yet another book about London? Why buy one? Why read it once it’s been bought?

The most obviously unusual thing about Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts: A journey through the London night (2007) is that it’s very small — running to a mere 140 pages, not all of them covered in prose — that it weighs only a few ounces, and fits easily into a handbag or jacket pocket. Since there is something about the incomprehensible vastness of London that breeds fat and unwieldy volumes, by creating a work so markedly at variance with the industry standard, Sandhu has already achieved a neat feat of authorial positioning. Early on, by a similar token, Sandhu effectively distances himself from he calls ‘the self-obsessed maunderings of psychogeographic writing’. So to put it more bluntly than Sandhu ever does — the author’s good manners are by no means the least remarkable facet of this in many ways compelling little volume — the diminutive format telegraphs that, no matter how well their books may sell, we are not dealing here with an Ackroyd or a Sinclair, let alone the sort of desperately heart-felt novel in which the author refuses to waste a single London thought, experience or half-forgotten borrowing from someone else’s marginally better book.

And then there’s that subtitle, pacing out the boundaries of Sandhu’s chosen subject-matter. Night Haunts comprises a series of short, interconnected essays in which Sandhu encounters, through a succession of nocturnal journeys, the human face of present-day, dusk-to-dawn London: not ‘nightlife’, for which Sandhu expresses a very fully-formed contempt, but rather the mysterious hidden life that goes on, day in and day out, when most of the Metropolis is sleeping, or at least trying to sleep. Continue reading

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Flashman and The Unmentionable Memoir

George MacDonald Fraser died this week. On the evidence of his published obituaries, Fraser’s sole claim to fame was his creation of the Flashman novels, a dozen of them in all, published between 1969 and 2005.

There was, needless to say, more to Fraser than Flashman, although one can see why the broadsheets and BBC might find themselves implying otherwise. For one thing, the minority who still read newspapers might reasonably be suspected of having encountered Fraser’s endearing antihero, too. And then there’s the opportunity to engage in some lazy, reflexive, unfunny anti-Americanism. Let’s award this week’s Hugh Trevor-Roper prize for notably attractive British journalistic humility [sic] here again, shall we? Finally, there’s the sloppy equation of huge, enduring importance with huge, recurring royalty cheques. Most journalists would like to have written a book that anyone remembered a fortnight after publication; to have written the sort of series that makes people think you’ve left the UK and moved to the Isle of Man for tax reasons is, more than any of Flashman’s own escapades, the stuff of memorable legend. Continue reading

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