Friday, 8 September 2017

Review: Michael Rosen So They Call You Pisher!

Writing autobiography and memoir is a perilous business.  We forget and what we do remember has often been re-arranged in our minds but without our knowledge. Then there is embarrassment about how we were then, embarrassment which we may try to counter with a heavy dose of irony signalling that Yes, We know, This is toe-curling. Then there are anxieties about what can and can’t be said because so-and-so is still alive or because we reckon that our audience will boo rather than laugh if we go down some particular, incorrect path as we surely at some point did. Everyone has their satanic moments.

Recently, I tried to imagine what I might say if asked to talk, autobiographically, to a student audience in Oxford and I came out in a sweat. I'd like to think this had something to do with the fact that I see little point in public talk which does not have some kind of edge. Nowadays, at any rate, I wouldn’t want simply to make an audience feel good; I would want to challenge them a bit. Oh, I’m willing to come at it gently enough but, eventually, I want to get to the edge, the point at which I say something like Excuse me, I am not convinced. The problem is not a tucked away, shit-covered statue of Cecil Rhodes. The whole genre of monumental sculpture is misconceived. The thinking behind it is essentially atavistic and the realisation is almost always artistically without merit. Imagine there’s no statues. It’s easy if you try. The worst thing that can happen is that we pull down one lot only to put up another.

Some of my fellow students in 1960s Oxford were born with a silver spoon in their mouth - in some cases, a fistful of spoons. Thus William Waldegrave, whose A Different Kind of Weather I reviewed here on 28 April 2015. Others were nourished from birth, and sometimes force-fed, with cultural capital which in Michael Rosen’s case spills in a continuous stream onto the pages of his memoir. It’s hard to believe anyone could acquire so much capital so early in life. 

Rosen (born 1946) is the younger son of second generation migrants who are upwardly mobile. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, living in London, they manage at the same time to be Communist, Jewish and sharp-elbowed, though it’s unclear in what order. I knew Michael Rosen’s father a bit,  a very lively and committed external examiner on a university course I directed, and before that I knew his son as a student at Oxford and then later as someone whose books I read to my children.

His memoir is lively and funny. His coming of age chapter La Colonie when at sixteen he goes to summer camp in France, without parents or older brother, is very well done. I found the book most interesting when he assembles bits of his cultural capital as it stood at a certain date and then stands back to reflect on what is going on in his life. But for the most part he sticks to a conventional Memoir form and, for example, does not attempt to link Life (to age twenty three) to later Work, except very incidentally. Maybe that is simply someone else's job.

Life from an early age was busy, and Rosen has always been busy – over 140 books, says the blurb. Perhaps too busy. I found my father intolerable because he played the part of an alcoholic who makes everyone around suffer, and my father most of the time wasn’t even drinking. He was just uninterested in other people’s needs or wishes when not actively hostile. I got very little from him, or worse. But Michael Rosen describes a father who is always there, always solicitous, always urging on. His mother tries to shield her son a bit, “Leave him alone. He’s tired”, but rather ineffectually it seems. Despite never having had such attention, I am sure I would have found a father like that intolerable and so I tend to read some of the incidents of rebelliousness catalogued in the later part of the book as a reaction to Harold’s omnipresence in his son’s life as well as to the absurdities of the institutions including Oxford that we attended. Michael cannot resist a jape and sometimes they backfire. 

He closes his book with a letter addressed to his father but written after the latter's death and even though the content is not directly about their relationship, indirectly I suspect it is all about that.


I seem to be  included at page 270 but remember absolutely nothing of the story there except that I know it must be true because I have a photograph which is in my Archive. At the time, this has been pinned up on a board and graffitied. I still find it excruciating, which may explain why I have so completely forgotten why I am there on the right playing the part of a complete prat or prick (take your pick), though possibly outperformed by Judith H in the middle who has just told her mum she is going to be in the school play. Martin W is looking behind having been struck by the appalling thought that we three may be parading alone along Broad Street, Oxford. 

Click on Image to Magnify

On this business of cultural capital. Michael Rosen absorbs it with his mother's milk and  his father's spoonings. It does make a difference. I got all my capital from school and the balance from home was probably negative. How many children learnt to eat up their lettuce because it contained lodnum [laudanum] which was good for you? But being entirely school-made, my guess is that you always feel a bit of a fraud. Michael Rosen was cheated out of a First Class degree by a spiteful examiner, Professor Dame Helen Gardner. He ends his book on the story with which I was familiar and which reads as if it still rankles. But I doubt her spite does cut into his capital, or much into him.

I wasn't cheated out of my First and indeed got one with knobs on - a congratulatory letter. About thirty years later I started to have a recurrent anxiety dream. I had decided to do the Oxford PPE course again, as a sort of refresher and challenge. But it had become much harder and I was unsure that I would be able to finish the course and increasingly certain that I would not get a First, might not even Pass. The anxiety became more intense, and I would wake up with the thought that I would have no option but to quit the course before I was put to the test. Because without the public endorsement, there was nothing in me.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War

In 1978, Svetlana Alexievich (1948- ) began the interviews which comprise this book. It was turned down for publication in 1983, but Soviet Perestroika allowed it to be published in a censored and self-censored but impressively large state edition in 1985. It is now translated in an edition which restores omitted material, but it was the 1985 edition which underpinned the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but is now Belarussian by nationality.
Alexievich does in-depth oral history and then composes her material into books where there is only a small amount of authorial narrative. In this book, she assembled the voices of women who were with the Red Army in the second world war, at the front and especially in the bloodlands of  Russia’s western front, Germany’s eastern front. Partisan, underground and liaison front liners are also well represented.

The narratives are harrowing and I read the book slowly, in sections, so as not to skip too easily over what was being told. Several times I was struck by the thought that these are the women who survived and lived to tell the tale thirty of forty years later, often hesitantly and in tears. Many others would have survived the war but died before then; some would have emigrated to Israel and maybe other countries; some refused to co-operate with the historian.

Several times also I thought this would make a splendid choice as a core text for a course in gender theory. It would disrupt a great deal of polite and facile thinking. Alexievich’s women have a lot to say about being women at the front line and are acutely aware of the tensions between their transgender occupations as snipers and fighter pilots and their previous existence as young women – often girls – in pretty frocks. There are no lesbians in the book, which I am sure has everything to do with Russian culture not the author’s selectivity. There is one woman who claims to be a man to get into the navy and tells a very funny story about it (pp. 202 -3).  But there is a general absence of vodka which surprised me.

There are many splendid examples of young women refusing to take No for an answer even from hardened Soviet bureaucrats. Most of those who fought at the front had first to overcome attempts to place them at the rear when they volunteered. Several simply hitched lifts or hid under tarpaulin to get to the front line and once there tried to make themselves useful and resisted attempts to send them away. Some were  under eighteen and under average height. A repetitive theme is the complaint that they had to wear men's army uniforms and boots many sizes too big for them.Only late in the war did the Soviet bureaucracy start supplying appropriate clothing. 

Alexievich’s patience and empathy – she cries a lot too – is rewarded with astonishing cameos and vignettes which made me cry too. Not the ones which are tales of the kinds of barbarism which still happen every day in modern war zones, but the absurd and poignant. There is the female commander of an anti-aircraft gun, listening to a wireless in the middle of the night and first to hear the Victory declaration. She then rouses her team from sleep to ready their big gun, and personally fires a four-round Victory salute, only to be arrested and then promptly un-arrested by the senior officer she has woken up (p 204). There are the boy and girl kissing publicly on a ghetto bench while a German pogrom is in progress. They are observed with horror by a female Soviet underground fighter who then realises, as the couple stand up and are shot, that they have seen their public kiss as a way of ensuring that they die together (p 208 - 09).

She also elicits oral one-liners which any writer would be proud of and she saves a couple until late in the book. An underground fighter explains that now, decades after the war, she doesn’t like spring. The war stands between us, between me and nature. When the cherry trees were in bloom, I saw fascists in my native Zhitomir (p 277). And on the last page, a medical assistant, Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, tells us that There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart. (p 331)

Do read this book and remember that the context is a war in which twenty million Soviet citizens died, leaving after-shocks which still continue.

See my Blog of 7 February 2017 for a review of Alexievich's Second-Hand Time

Sunday, 27 August 2017

A Life in Books

I began reading grown-up books when I was twelve or thirteen and by grown-up I mean Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Edgar Wallace. I have been reading ever since. I do discard books but, once I have started, then I try to get to the end. Sometimes that’s hard and eventually unrewarding. I’m not a speed reader of any kind. I don’t skim and I do read footnotes. So if I had to guess how many books I have read, on average, every year then the figure won’t be very high. Not less than 100 and not more than 200, I guess – I’ve never kept lists so I can’t be sure.

Suppose we settle on 150 a year – three a week – then in fifty years that’s a mere 7 500 books, many of them of ephemeral interest, many of them textbooks, many of them not worth the effort expended. Since I am now seventy I should be calculating on fifty seven or fifty eight years. OK. The round figure still only goes to 8 000. If I am under-estimating wildly, then 10 000.

They are very small numbers, aren’t they? And the number of books I have read more than once must be very small indeed, dominated by set texts read many times for teaching purposes. Things like J S Mill’s On Liberty.

It means that there are thousands of Should Read books that I have not read and maybe now I should try to make a List, prioritise as they say. After all, even if I read 150 books a year for another ten years, that’s only another 1 500. And there are books I would like to re-read, and some because I need to re-read them because I refer to them in something I am writing ( I just re-read John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy for that reason and that’s 680 pages in my edition).

Prioritise. But do I prioritise the unread short books or the unread long ones? And does a re-reading count as much as a new reading?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Review: Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population

On my desktop I have a Word doc. titled “The Surplus Population” and it is in the context of a desire to expand on that title that I read Malthus’s 1798 essay in the original version included within this larger collection of his work. Malthus started off in Mathematics and this is no doubt the main reason why he formulates his Principle of Populaton in mathematical terms:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio

In consequence, in all human societies famine is a real and permanent possibility. There are two principal ways to try to defeat Malthus’s argument. First, you can claim that population can readily be checked by preventive measures,  of which contraception is the one that Malthus refuses even to contemplate since it is a severe violation of Christian morality. Second, you can argue that Malthus underestimates the real possibility of raising agricultural productivity.

These counter-claims are not as convincing as on first read they may appear. Leave aside the baleful influence of the Roman Catholic church, and it is still the case that human beings, given the chance, do seem inclined to breed at a level which in many cases they must know is prejudicial to their ability to feed the children they are begetting. Those who have no such material worries are often happy to preen themselves on their own fertility, as if we should look up to them as a model to emulate. As I write, Jacob Rees-Mogg is the most prominent in England among the ranks of those inviting our admiration for the prowess of his sperm. He has outperformed both Prince Philip and Tony Blair. But if he was not a wealthy man, he would be considered as simply feckless.

Second, there are major examples of political leaders vastly overestimating their ability to increase agricultural production and productivity. Stalin did it and gave the world the Ukrainian famine which cost several million lives; Mao Tse Tung did it and caused deaths in the tens of millions before he was stopped; the dynasty which rules North Korea has done it repeatedly and now has so many soldiers and so few peasants that it will never be able to feed its population (which in the past few decades has meant that the USA has repeatedly stepped in to feed them).

So Malthus may be on to something after all. But the Essay is interesting also because of many side thoughts, notably on topics such as the relation between national wealth and general happiness and the likely absence of trickle down effects from very unequal distributions of wealth and income. He was one of the first, if not the first, to point out that demand does not always generate supply and that measures to fund demand still do not do the trick. In his day, poor relief did not turn into more food produced only into higher food prices . In our own day, Help to Buy does not turn into more houses built only into higher house prices – which, of course, every British government must deliver at peril of losing its voting base.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review: Alison Bechdel, The Fun Home

I don’t think I have read a comic book / graphic novel since the first volumes of Maus and I only read this one because it was sent to me. It’s very good and at a basic level impressive for the sheer scale of the project which has been completed: hundreds of line drawings across 232 pages. I suppose the book belongs to the genre of Secrets & Lies.

There are two basic rules of parent-child relationships: no child shall die before both of their parents are dead; no parent shall die before their youngest child has passed their eighteenth birthday. Alison Bechdel’s father does not violate the letter of the second rule, but he violates the spirit, getting killed by a truck (or killing himself in front of a truck) when Alison is still at college and when there are still may unresolved issues between them, not least her fairly recent discovery that her father has frequent sexual flings with boys and young men (the age range is a bit unclear, but seems like 16 – 21). She has recently come out to her family as a lesbian (in theory) and is just braving the passage to becoming a lesbian (in practice).

Her family situation is odd and is presented in great detail: her father is obsessive about numerous projects, many of them concerning their home. He is emotionally distant. He runs a part-time funeral home (hence the book’s title) and his children are on intimate terms with dead bodies, embalming fluid and such like. The father also teaches and the mother, who comes and goes a bit in the book and is also distant, studies. This is a family where everyone is always busy.

The text is a plain narrative which reads as both diary and public confession. It has a sort of and then and then and then character which means that the reader feels free to stop and put down the book whenever. Instead of dialogue, we have drawn speech bubbles. I think I read all of them, so the arrangement is clearly working. The book takes its time to expound the themes which Bechdel wants to present, and is often funny as well as probing.

I think it works and I’m glad I read it.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Review: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

When you publish a book, anyone can read it and make what they will of it. That truth is strikingly demonstrated by Maggie Nelson when she reports that one of her previous books, about the murder of her mother’s sister, earnt her a middle-aged, male stalker carrying an attaché case who pursued her on to campus and qualified her for a security guard outside her teaching classroom. The handbooks don’t discuss that kind of writing block. Maggie Nelson mentions others, writing with very measured dry humour

Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t (p 153)

The author writes  about her life in California, married to Harry who is F transitioning to M with the help of testosterone and a double mastectomy. Harry has a son by a previous relationship and Maggie Nelson gives birth to a son with the help of a sperm donor. The story is exploratory, well written, and concludes with an accomplished narrative which is split between her experience of childbirth and motherhood and her partner’s narrative of the death of his mother.

It may sound odd to say this, but in the past this book would have been written as a spiritual autobiography – there was a genre – and most likely it would have been decorated with passages from the Scriptures. Maggie Nelson’s story is iced with quotations from the usual modern theorists of identity, sexuality, gender and feminist theory – many of them French post-structuralist. I do wonder if they actually help or whether they will serve principally to allow the author to include this book in an academic CV. I have believed that the personal is political for fifty years. I'm still unsure about the personal is academic.

I have my doubts about several of the theorists she quotes – they write and theorise in a way which allows a cult to form but not for understanding to develop – and I only relaxed when she seems to come down strongly on the side of the plain language wisdom of D W Winnicott.

I had other doubts which relate in part to what I think of as American culture with its strongly fundamentalist inflections. America as we know it was the creation of rogues and religious zealots whose weakness was always to look for enemies rather than friends – the paranoid style. That style endures, both among America’s oppressors and America’s oppressed, and it leads people to dig in to positions which are elaborated and fortified beyond reason. You can end up with more rules than the Old Order Amish. Maggie Nelson is not immune, even though her book is well written, engaging and deals squarely with matters of the heart.

America also has a bad relationship with medical science. Americans pay more for less good care than people in many other countries. And because it is so largely commercialised, it remains as it always has been, prey to charlatans and quacks or, at the very least, to those who seek to persuade you that more medicine is better than less. In my mind, I am unable to extricate the narrative of Harry's transition from F to M from its medicalisation and I do fear that one day people will be saying that the medicine got it wrong. I hope not. In my case, my fear means only that I have a drawer full of prescription drugs which at one time or another I have decided not to take, sometimes wisely I am sure.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: Alex Preston, In Love and War

Click on Image to Magnify

The cynicism of the cover drew my attention to this book on the Waterstones table. We have seen this cover before: it normally targets the person walking into W H Smith to buy the Rothermere paper and a bar of Toblerone and who wants the past – not the distant past, but anywhere between the 1930s and the 1950s (before Suez) when England was posh and glorious and Toblerone was a very special treat. It could have been more cynical: the novel features a dog but we are spared Tatters on the cover. Maybe Faber and Faber drew the line; it cannot be very many years ago that they would have committed suicide rather than commit to a cover like this. It's gold-embossed, in case that's not clear from my scan.

All’s fair in publishing nowadays and, indeed, I bought the book. I looked around for the Toblerone but Waterstones doesn’t stock it yet.

I read the novel and felt ambivalent. I don’t often feel ambivalent – the last time was when I read a copper’s autobiography (Clive Driscoll’s The Pursuit of the Truth) and felt I was being led by an unreliable narrator. With this novel, the cover had primed me to look for cynicism and it is there all over the text if you want to find it, the tropes we are familiar with wheeled on to the page one after another: posh country house England, young chap up at Cambridge, ambivalent sexuality, unwise flirtations with fascism, the woman who reminds him what decency is. For the first hundred pages I was inclined to give up. It all seemed lifeless, the prose even or flat, no anguish and remarkably untroubled passion which I suppose goes with the privilege of being posh. When Preston kills off his first heroine Fiamma at page 110, it doesn’t matter very much.

The novel then becomes more stylistically inventive and gets better but there are relapses. Thus Preston’s leading man, Esmond, recording privately on disc for posterity after the outbreak of War finds a new love and delivers himself of the following thoughts:

If it strikes you as strange, after Philip, after Gerald, that I should love Ada, it shouldn’t. It is not only that Fiamma, dear dead Fiamma, served as a copula, a springboard, a bridge. I have always loved beauty and the gender of those I love matters to me as little as their shoe size. It seems odd to me that so many humans limit themselves, slavishly. For now, it is Ada. (page 201)

It’s true that Esmond does grow up a lot after recording this drivel, but what he records does rather suggest he has done a tick-box degree in Queer Studies where you learn that sex is not acceptable in polite society and must be replaced by gender. But this point of social etiquette dates from the 1980s not the 1930s.  I now felt sorry for Fiamma.

By page 241 Esmond is reading The Communist Manifesto but by this point the dog has entered the story so the reader can feel Esmond must be on the right path notwithstanding. Dogs enter novels at the author’s peril. Milan Kundera does it extremely well in The Unbearable Lightness of Being so it can’t be absolutely wrong. 

Thanks to his new love, Ada, Esmond finds himself a fighter in the Italian Resistance and it is the exploits of the resistance which make up much of the text in the latter part of the book.

I made it to the end (page 340) by which time Esmond is horribly but courageously dead and Ada in Auschwitz. I didn’t shed any tears and that may explain why one of the jacket reviews, quoted from GQ, tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”.  Those who signed off the cover at Faber and Faber presumably had no qualms about that product endorsement. Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?

The late Stuart Hood’s Pebbles From My Skull, later reworked as Carlino, is an impressive  memoir of escape from a Prisoner of War camp and a year spent in the Italian Resistance in Tuscany. This seems a good place to recommend it. Hood (1915 – 2011) was what used to be called “a man of the Left” but in the 1940s he was a British military intelligence officer - though one should say, British as in Scottish. Sometime in the 1980s, I discovered he lived in Brighton and got him appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex to contribute to the MA programme I directed. The University was too stupid to recognise his many distinctions and  refused to give him an honorary doctorate for his lifetime work, preferring local notables. Hood’s wartime experience was clearly an ever-present fact of his life, not only in the form of reunions with old comrades (a Piazza is named after him somewhere in Tuscany) but also in doubts and anxieties. I recall walking across the Sussex campus one evening and asking him if his experience still affected his everyday, ordinary life. Yes, he replied, in the evenings I get anxious about where I am going to sleep – his own house and home a couple of miles from where we were walking.