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Saturday, 12 June 2021

Review: Duncan Minshull (Ed.), Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe

 




I bought this because I  read a favourable review and because I sometimes write essays which describe a walk. The book was a pleasure to read, not least because it is produced to Notting Hill edition standards. It slipped into my pocket and I took it with me on a couple of walks which would be punctuated by stops at park benches.

Duncan Minshull  illustrates things which are not specific to his theme. First, that there are very many forgotten, out of print, and (helpfully) out of copyright books which contain very readable material. Second, that short extracts - there are over fifty  in this hundred and fifty page book - if well stitched together (which they are) can add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Some of his authors are very well known, others entirely forgotten. Some walk a lot as a commitment or a pastime; others happen to walk for one reason or another - not always willingly: Nellie Bly stumbles in muddy First World War trenches because it’s her job as a journalist; Robert Antelme is on a Second World War death march. Some tell us more about themselves than the terrain they pass through; some make us laugh - the vigorous Elizabeth von Arnim has a couple of the best lines; some evoke a past - Edith Wharton does it brilliantly. Thomas Jefferson comes out well from a very short extract in which he obtains a poor person’s story.

Elizabeth von Arnim is anxious about walking alone and George Sand solves the problem by cross-dressing. Minshull’s walkers have little to say about thieves, cut-throats, child hawkers (my own memory of Istanbul), or beggars. None stroll the red light districts of Europe’s cities and none (if I recall correctly) are walking in search of work.

It was a very pleasant stroll to read this book.


Thursday, 6 May 2021

Review: Karl Schlögel, The Scent of Empires

 

 


Timothy Snyder  provided a blurb for the publisher of this book and that caused me to buy it, since Snyder’s own work is very, very impressive. It’s a short book and I read it at one sitting, which may explain why I noticed some unnecessary repetitions of basic bits of information, suggesting that the book was prepared from shorter pieces prepared for separate occasions. An editor could have dealt with this.

The book doesn’t quite come off. I love the idea of taking something apparently minor or peripheral, like the history of the recipe for a perfume, and trying to make the whole world emerge from it as if from a grain of sand. But partly because of incomplete information - for example, the fate in the 1930s of one of the main characters, the Tsarist- turned Soviet-perfumer Auguste Michel - we are left with sketches rather than any whole picture.

Brevity also creates the occasional misunderstanding. After Stalin’s death, his henchman Lavrenty Beria appears in person ( p 116) to release Molotov’s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina, exiled in 1949 and re-arrested again shortly before Stalin’s death. She is a major figure in the narrative since in the 1930s she headed up Soviet cosmetic and perfume manufacture and in 1939 achieved the distinction of being the USSRs first female full-rank People’s Commissar ( p 107). She was more than Molotov's wife, though it was that which first gave a place at the top table. That Beria appeared in person to release her makes him sound rather gallant. Separately, we are told that she remained a convinced Stalinist and hated Khruschev (p 117). The context is this: immediately after Stalin’s death, Beria formed a ruling troika with Malenkov and Molotov; Molotov could easily have made his wife’s release a condition of his participation. The aim of the troika was to maintain the status quo. It was ousted in Khruschev’s and Zhukov’s coup of June 1953; Beria was executed in December 1953 and those now in power explicitly or tacitly agreed that with the death of Beria -  without question an evil figure -  they would henceforth stop killing each other. Beria was most definitely not gallant and Khruschev stopped not only Beria but Polina and her husband Molotov from carrying on Stalinist business as usual.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the reminders it provided of the vast army of foreign talent assembled in Russia before 1914, not only to develop Russia’s infrastructure and heavy industry (think, notably, of John Hughes in the Donbass) but to service the tastes of Russia’s most wealthy, the 1% who lived a life of leisure and ostentation funded by rents generated far away from St Petersburg or Moscow and ultimately based on the labour of an impoverished population.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Review: Hazel V. Carby, Imperial Intimacies

 


There was a period when genealogists were specialists in pedigree and I guess there are still those who want to know where they stand in the line of succession to the British throne. Wikipedia only goes up to Number Sixty which completely fails to recognise that a meteorite disaster might require number 6666 to step up. But the popular hobby of family history, enormously boosted by online resources, has a wider appeal. Even the bureaucratic records of births, marriage and deaths, now so easily accessed, provide enough information for the reconstruction of probable stories, for enabling some reasonable sense of how long dead people lived their lives. And though many will be satisfied with common sense tellings, others will delve into history books to set lives into fuller contexts. And for some, books will not suffice and they will visit physical archives and physical streets and buildings - though often enough the latter prove to be changed beyond recognition, as Hazel Carby discovers on her own journeys. But, anyway, there is a spectrum with the bare family tree at one end and, at the other, creative non-fictions which put people into settings and re-create the happinesses, successes, failures, and tragedies of ordinary lives - and which approach to what one might call social histories.

Sometimes such stories are the supplement or an alternative to autobiography. Hazel Carby holds back from her own autobiography, allowing the reader glimpses of shocking incidents which are recorded but not developed. She tries to keep other people in the foreground, to imaginatively re-create their lives, and to set them in contexts using the vocabulary available to a Yale Professor of African American Studies. Sometimes that works, at other times it feels alienating perhaps because just too anachronistic. I read it as an awkward index of the distance Hazel Carby has travelled in her own life, a distance which many travelled in the Great Britain of the 1950s and 1960s when the post-war welfare state provided a material underpinning for upward social mobility through the educational system. One main result was often to leave the upwardly mobile not belonging where they arrived and no longer belonging where they left. Carby is not really in that category since both her parents were talented, valued education, and secured quite a lot of it for themselves and not just, vicariously, for their children. Her father read those of her academic books published before he died.

As the late 1940s child of a white Anglo-Welsh mother and a mixed race Jamaican father who was talented enough to be accepted for aircrew in the war-time RAF, she moves between settings in Britain and Jamaica. She foregrounds the racism she encountered in school and her father at work and in dealing with the Home Office and she traces the history of colonialism, slavery, and more racism as they unfolded in Jamaica from the eighteenth century onwards. Her detective story coup is to trace her Jamaican father’s story back to the union of a small time white English slave plantation-owner and his black “housekeeper” and to find that in that way she is linked not just to Jamaican Carbys but to the Carbys of an eighteenth century Lincolnshire village. It is a remarkable story - and also remarkable that the written records which we keep in public archives are a gift which keeps on giving.

This book belongs on the shelf with works like Alison Light’s Common People which give us a sort of Premier League of family and social histories, stories which non-academic researchers can read with pleasure and aspire to emulate.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Review: Philip Stephens, Britain Alone

 



This is a fluent narrative of the United Kingdom’s external political relations with the USA and the European Union from the Suez debacle of 1956 to the Brexit debacle of 2016 and its immediate aftermath. The story is told through the eyes and words of Prime Ministers, their advisers, and senior Whitehall civil servants. There is more detail in earlier chapters where even readers like myself who lived through the events may have forgotten the details - or worse: I can’t even remember if I voted in the first 1975 Referendum…... Later chapters assume, reasonably enough, that the reader’s memory is still reasonably fresh. But even those with very good memories will find things here which they didn’t already know.

Though the author (chief political commentator at the Financial Times - the newspaper I have read for several years after giving up on The Guardian of Morality) took the Remainer side in Britain’s (still ongoing) civil strife, the narrative does not feel unbalanced or obsessive. Nor does Stephens get side-tracked into gossip and he characterises Prime Ministers in terms of their grasp of issues, their management and presentational skills, their decisiveness - and their success or failure. So it’s a serious book.

There are two or three lacunae. Though Empire & Commonwealth figures in the background it rarely appears as a player, nor do those who have migrated from it to the UK. This misses several things. The Empire provided soldiers and supplies of essential goods through World War Two (see David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and in those ways was not untouched by the European conflict. Equally, more recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent have not had a European take on the world and have clearly been open to “Global Britain” rhetoric. The Leave campaign of 2016 courted the Asian vote (including that in the northern “Red Wall” constituencies) and it was made to appear that the ending of free movement from the EU would be the precursor to greater openness to migration from Asia. This appealed, among others, to Bangladeshi restaurant owners and so on, though they may yet be disappointed. But in 2021 the door has already been opened to dual national citizens of Hong Kong.

This seemingly small topic does sit within a larger one which would look more broadly at the UKs changing demographic which played a large part in making possible the Leave victory in 2016. It also qualifies the broad brush characterisation of the Leave campaign as racist or xenophobic. There are good foreigners and bad foreigners and those who live next door are always the worst.

Another seemingly small topic is Russian influence, which nowhere appears, except briefly in the quaint form of the Profumo scandal. Though Stephens charts a history of the arms-based Cold War and its end, he does not make a theme of the new Cold War in which Russia has deployed cyberattacks, money, kompromat, trolls, and sleeper agents to weaken and even destabilise Western democracies. It would not have been gossip to say something about the role of Russian money in the Leave campaign and in financially sustaining a Conservative Party which has very few members and relatively few enthusiastic donors. The UKs hesitations about its international allegiances and its real friends does seem to have opened a space for the operations of those who wish it failure rather than success. Put differently, the Conservative Party has changed and there are new Brexiters as well as the remaining old-guard of Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, and so on.

*

Contemporary book jackets, done on the cheap by freelancers, are often dire. This one is quite clever and reminds me that in Germany the UK is now sometimes referred to as Die Insel. And in France, England’s decline is charted in the small linguistic change which has turned Les Rosbifs into Les Fuck-Offs.

*

Nearly all the books reviewed on this website are ones I have bought; this one was sent as a review copy by the publisher, Faber.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Review: Martha C. Nussbaum & Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully

 



I’d like to think I am ageing thoughtfully so I bought this book, not least because in the past I have read and admired the work of the lead author[1]. But this book doesn’t quite work.

Published in 2017, it has become the victim of circumstances beyond its control: the degeneration of American society under the rule of the Trump Family and then the related devastation by COVID. As a result, it now reads as a bit complacent.

But more importantly, it gets caught in that trap which lies between the purely academic book which one can add to one’s CV (it was published in America by Oxford University Press) and the general readership to which most academics and academic publishers now aspire. There is a division of labour between Nussbaum and Levmore, the former pushing to be a bit controversial, the latter settling for the role of avuncular, unbiased adviser on tax planning. But both are held back by the exalted social positions they occupy: Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; Levmore is William B. Graham Professor of Law in the same university. Nussbaum tries to break frame a bit when, for example, she writes about her colonoscopies. But neither wants to write anything which might deter anyone from becoming the future Ernst Freund’s and William B. Graham’s - sources of gifts and endowments. Rule one of American top university life: Don’t offend the alumni!

Their positions do matter to them, and especially to Nussbaum who spends a significant bit of her share of the book making a pre-emptive strike against those who might expect her, in the near future (she was born - like me - in 1947)  to step down from the Ernst Freund. No chance. A compulsory retirement age is an evil, even if applied to all, and just part of the general  stigmatisation of discriminated-against old(er) people. She’s having none of it. She exercises, eats healthily, has all her marbles intact, and she is going nowhere. All this is asserted in prose which I found brash and not much more than special pleading. She tells us that many great philosophers have produced their best work when old, but unless you can generalise that to mathematicians, scientists and engineers it’s not really a sensible basis for a university retirement policy. Her determination to assert her rights may be the reason why one of the great writers on human ageing, Michel de Montaigne, doesn’t even make it into the index. He was far too willing to accept retirement and, indeed, celebrate it. Levmore is more nuanced on the subject of retirement and there, are of course, ways of softening the blow of compulsory retirement. In universities, the word “Emeritus” provides a little balm; continued use of an office even more - and for someone working in the humanities, surely enough to enable continued research activity. And though Oxford University insists on retirement at sixty seven - rightly in my view - there is no need to apply the rule to its press: a book can be judged on its merits each time, regardless of the age of the author. There are tricky areas: Oxford has a famous Professorship of Poetry, the holder chosen by vote open to all university graduates. The job has  nominal duties, modest stipend, and a fixed term of four years. But in 2019, when someone tried to nominate Denise Riley (born 1948) to the post, the university’s retirement rule disqualified her.

As well as “Retirement Policy” the book has chapters on the importance of friendship, the different kind of relationship we can have to our ageing bodies, the balancing act between retrospection and looking forward, romance and sex, the elderly poor and what to do about them (this is America so: not very much), and estate planning (“Giving It Away”). There are interesting passages throughout but there is too much which is emollient. And the authors do repeat themselves; an editor could have struck through quite a few lines because, as you know, older people do repeat themselves.



[1] See my review of Martha Nussbaum , Anger and Forgiveness in Philosophy Now,  Issue 124,  February / March 2018, page 51.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

On the Use and Mention of Words

 


 

Students of linguistics, literature and philosophy sooner or later get the idea that there is an important distinction between the use of a word (any word) and its mention. In print, the distinction can be marked by putting on punctuation marks to indicate that a word is being mentioned (quoted); alternatively, it can be italicised. The common purpose is to prevent confusion about who said what. It also, in some circumstances at least, exempts someone who mentions a word from any opprobium which might attach to it use. But it’s not always so simple.

A police officer is giving evidence in the kind of ordinary court of law found in many countries, and says at some point, “I then arrested him and he used a racist epithet”. Now because the police officer is giving evidence and is not prosecutor, judge and jury all at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and relevant to ask, “What epithet?” To know it may be relevant to assessing the gravity of an offence. The officer is only being asked to mention the word, to quote it, not use it themself. It ought to be simple. Sometimes it isn’t and the police officer may demur, “I don’t want to say the word”. In that situation, a judge may ask the officer to write it down, knowing that this is usually acceptable even when saying the word is not.  The slip of paper may then be passed silently to judge, prosecution, defence, and jury.

The officer’s hesitation may be prompted by different kinds of sensibility - they may simply not want to be party to circulating the word in any form, use or mention; they would like the word to go away and not saying it is a step in the right direction. Even if the officer does say it, a newspaper reporting the case will most likely not print it. Instead, a report may repeat the original “racist epithet” formula or, alternatively, print the word in a censored form, say, ******, which may be modified by providing one or two letters as clues. 

This curious practice of giving clues is a modification of the slip-of-paper compromise: the reader now does not have to see the word, but is enabled to infer it, and the more clues provided the less uncertain becomes the inference until the word is staring you in the face. If you want to check the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse, online sources will offer you as the second word several versions: “****”, “***k”, “f**k” and “f*ck”. It is an interesting question why anyone should think “f*ck” preferable as an alternative to what Larkin actually wrote in those heady days back in the 1970s when people were trying to say and write what they meant. The obvious answer is that they now mis-quote it as “f*ck” because they do not even want to see the word “fuck”, just as the police officer did not want to hear the racist epithet even in the form of a mention.

Especially in relation to speech, there may also be a fear that your audience might react in an unwanted way. A police officer who says, “I then arrested him and he used a fat-shaming epithet” may not want to mention the word or expression used simply from anxiety that the court-room audience might not be sufficiently on guard to suppress a titter. It’s possible that they have already had such a thought about the unfortunate officer. An epithet can be well-chosen, even if disgraceful or illegal.

There is a back story relevant to the discussion. In all the main monotheistic religions, use or mention of the name of God is hedged about with prohibitions, taboos, and contextual requirements; it is one of the Ten Commandments that “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This requires interpretation, and indeed since it was first written down, many (millions of?)  man-hours - paid and unpaid - have been devoted to its exegesis. One fairly common interpretation leads to the conclusion that, really, one should not use the name of the **** at all, though whether that is a matter of piety or prudence has also to be decided.

There is also a heresy within Russian Orthodoxy which goes in the reverse direction. The name of God should not be used carelessly because the name of God is God, rather in the way that some mathematicians think that the number names are the numbers, without any other kind of existence than the words we commonly employ.

Those who believe that the name of God is God (the heresy is still alive) are called Imyaslavtsy, meaning Those who glorify the Name. When in 1913 Nicholas the Second of Russia was told that Russian monks on Mont Athos had become infected with the new heresy, he despatched a gunboat and two transport ships to Mont Athos. The Archbishop of Vologda was put ashore and held lengthy talks in which many monks identified themselves as heretics and refused to recant. As a result, initiative was passed back to the repressive apparatus of the Russian state. Troops came ashore, rounded up the heretics - killing four, injuring around fifty - and eventually loaded over eight hundred monks onto the ships for transport to Odessa where a few were found Not Guilty and allowed to return to Athos; rather more were jailed; and the remainder defrocked and sent into internal exile.  

 

The use/mention distinction easily gets forgotten.  Exodus seems to be quite clear about it: that one should not “take” the name seems to be a claim (in that translation) that one should not use the name. Bu there is no discussion of quotation. This is a pity because it could probably have saved a lot of subsequent trouble. And it does seem that the Imyaslavtsy might have misread John 1:1 as if it was saying, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was “God”.

*

This little discussion actually has an ultra-modern relevance. There has always been a part of linguistics, notably that associated with the making of dictionaries, which has interested itself in first uses of a word, subsequent developments in the way the word is used, and in some cases, a word’s fall into disuse. Such corpus linguistics was heavily dependent on printed texts and was extremely laborious work. Modern computer-based data harvesting radically alters the situation: provided it is online, truly huge amounts of data can be harvested with ease. Take any word which, say, has recently become popular and it will be possible to track its origins, its often-global dissemination, its typical users (classified along any dimensions you like), and so on. But there is a catch. Suppose I want to give an example of a newly popular word and choose “genderfluid”. Then if what I write should appear online, a data-harvesting program designed to pick up occurrences of the word will pick it up. But I haven’t used the word; I have mentioned it. And unless the program is trained to distinguish use and mention it cannot ground certain interpretations which human users of the data might want to make. Unable to distinguish use and mention, a program would not differentiate between such very different occurrences of “genderfluid” as these:

(1)   I am genderfluid

(2)   I never use the word “genderfluid”; I would not like to take it in vain.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

The Manufacturing Interest: Booker Prize Shortlisted Books 2020

 

I bought five of the six as a bundle on Amazon, not with any great enthusiasm - more with a view to updating myself on what kinds of books the manufacturing interest wishes to promote: it costs £5000 to enter a book for the Booker Prize. I left one of the six off my order since it was described as the third volume of a trilogy and if that’s the case then I would have to buy the trilogy, wouldn’t I? What are they doing just listing a third of a work as a potential prize-winner? (Tsitsi Dangarmbga, This Mournable Body)?

I took the shortest book first, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar: sensible length (229 pages, wide spacing to text, decent font size), short chapters, crisp writing. The first person narrator (Antara) is not very nice, very prickly, a bit disturbed and with every reason for being so. She splices the story of her Indian childhood into a narrative of her current situation (still in India) as wife of Dilip and eventually less-than-perfect mother of baby Annika. The pace is steady but the narrative tension and edginess increases through the book, and as a result my approval rating went up as I read on. Like many readers, my attention span has been shortened by the siren call of the computer sitting opposite on my desk but though at first I was checking my emails more or less after each chapter I settled into longer reading stints - the chapters about the narrator’s adolescence are very well done. First impression: at least good enough to be in the running for a prize of some kind.

*

Next up, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King set mostly in 1930s Ethiopia. My paperback has over twenty endorsements (always depressing), but including one from Salman Rushdie who writes, “A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth”. I think he is pulling out the most important aspect, but I also think the novel doesn’t quite achieve its goal of lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s readable, at times gripping, there is a strong narrative thread, and I guess that for most readers the fictionalised history will be new to them as it was to me. So lots of positives, to which reviewers from the police department add that the book is about “female empowerment”. Why bother with Aster and Hirut, Ferres and the cook, Kidane and Fucelli, Aklilu and Navarra when you could just write about “female empowerment”?

But the problematic aspect begins with the simple fact that the book has three epigraphs, which is two too many. We are offered “The Iliad by Homer”, “Isaiah”, and “Agamemnon by Aeschylus”.  From this one can deduce that Mengiste, or her editor, reckons that her readers will know what “Isaiah” is but might not be able to place “The Iliad” or “Agamemnon” unless reminded of their authors or vice versa, though I guess there are those who will have recently been reading Madeleine Miller.

As well as providing a historical narrative in which complex characters are developed, Mengiste tries to lift it into myth in passages (including Greek-inspired “Chorus” passages) which I ended up feeling were overwritten, overwrought, and at worst meant to help out the person who will be trying to sell the film rights to Hollywood. In that terrible place they would be converted  into panoramic images of “woman standing erect beside man on horseback on top of mountain, silhouetted by sun, hair blowing in wind” etc.

I can imagine a better novel in which all this stuff was cut out and Mengiste stayed with the exploration of human complexity, intensity of human feeling, and the sometimes ambiguous character of violence - all things about which Mengiste writes extremely well, and in general leaving it to the reader to develop their own understanding of what has been depicted.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Booker judges gave it the prize.

*

There is something not quite right about Douglas Stuart’s autobiographical novel Shuggie Bain - I guess Douglas was probably called Duggie as a child. He grew up in Glasgow but now lives in the USA where he wrote this book. It was first published in America and apart from a one-word puff from Graham Norton (“Brilliant”) all the puffs on the jacket of my hardback are from American publications. The book belongs to the genre of rough working class childhood - in this case declining industries (coal and shipyards), delinquent father (taxi driver), very alcoholic mother, older siblings busily trying to escape. The genre is still acceptable, though nowadays if the eponymous hero is male he also needs to be gay, since straight working class white males are going nowhere in publishing. Shuggie is gay right from the start: the child trails Daphne, a pink plastic doll, to alert his readers.

Stuart acknowledges a lot of help and from the names and places I guess that most of the help was American with rough working class morphing into trailer trash.  Whatever the genesis, the result is a parody of the original genre: relentless, no opportunity missed to deepen the misery, no comic relief, no irony. And I suspect it may be the fault of his helpers rather than the author.  I do hope it doesn’t win the prize; I abandoned the book half-way through.

*

I wrote the previous paragraphs nearly four months ago. I then picked up Diane Cooke’s The New Wilderness, and promptly put it down again. No thanks. And when Shuggie Bain won the prize, I didn’t have the heart to bother with the final book on the shortlist, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. But I have read it now, a few months later - I saw it on the shelf and thought “Well, I bought it, I suppose I should try …”. It’s good. Technically, there are some accomplished set piece scenes in which the small cast of characters are meeting together, taking time out, exchanging remarks which sometimes turn awkward. These scenes are tautly written and keep the reader on edge.  There is an interesting and unusual backdrop of campus science labs. There is a complex main character, gay black male Wallace, who only feels clichéd in the stream of consciousness / monologue in which he describes his childhood. The chapter which it occupies (pp 193 - 201) is perhaps just too short to attain a complexity which matches the character we are learning about in the other chapters. There are hints of Virginia Woolf in the writing - there is a nod to To The Lighthouse - but the writing - though frequently referencing landscape and weather in the context of an exploration of human emotion - is not either over-literary or under-literary. It’s a book you could compare & contrast with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Forced to choose between Taylor's Real Life and Doshi's Burnt Sugarwith which it has things in common, I would pick her book.