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Monday, 23 March 2020

No Review Really Needed: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song












Gossip is a dish best served hot. True, it can sometimes be re-heated: how else explain the continuing fascination of literary London with tales of century-old Bloomsbury gropes and fumbles? Those fascinated  would be horrified to think that such things might happen today, still less  written about. But the fastidious are numerous, enough of them to ensure that in London publishing circles it is believed that the only really safe sex is that between dead posh people.

In New York there is also a  long literary tradition of re-heated gossip of which Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) might stand as an example: thirty years on from your time at Vassar College you dish the dirt on who said what, who did what, back then and for sure you have a best-seller on your hands. Truman Capote also achieved best-sellerdom with his 1975 Esquire magazine contribution “La Côte Basque 1965” which touted rather too recent gossip about very very rich people - the metropolitan elite with knobs on -  thus rather unsurprisingly causing its author no end of a problem. But the piece paid the rent and much more besides.

Swan Song re-heats the 1975 story and the furore it provoked and - since everyone involved is now very dead - the novel has received universal praise, the publishers able to splash plaudits over front and back covers and five garish inner pages of my edition: “Remarkable” (Woman & Home) “Spellbinding” (Sunday Express - An English newspaper for dead people), and so on. So much credit for re-telling so much past gossip. You can understand why there are authors out there ready to go the moment Prince Philip actually dies.

The author writes well, constructs scenes  effectively, varies the style of telling, and so on. It’s just a pity that it’s all in the cause of the idle rich. It’s not as if it’s Brett Easton Ellis: one learns a great deal about what people ate, drank, wore, and how they protected their skin from the sun but it doesn’t feel in the least bit satirical. I got to page 131 and then looked and saw that it would go on until page 467. I called it a day.

The novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction - which is why I bought it - but got no farther; perhaps someone suggested that there is really no good reason to go on feeding our conformist enthusiasm for celebrity gossip even when it is got up safely as Literature.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Surely a Great Time to Read Trevor Pateman Between Remembering and Forgetting ....


 Click on Image to Magnify


A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15 post free from the publisher and author. Online bank payment only - no cheques at this time :) But you can ask for a signed copy....

Order from  degreezeropublisher@gmail.com   or   patemantrevor@gmail.com

Regular UK stockists include  Amazon* and Waterstones

* Depending on how you access Amazon, it is currently showing only Kindle editions unless you click to All Formats. This book is not available as Kindle.




Friday, 20 March 2020

Review: Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other




In Ruritania, there are many ranks, orders, and medals. An elderly gentleman commonly known as Prince Charles but whose full title is sentences longer than that is often photographed wearing a chestful of ornaments, the birthday badges which his Mum has given him over the many years of a very extended childhood. But even those in the lower orders of society can aspire to their own Ruritanian badge. Bernardine Evaristo has one; she is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - remarkably, this Order does not have to wait for others to award it a ***** rating; it is already Most Excellent in its own eyes.

Evaristo’s MBE may explain much about Girl, Woman, Other. It’s not so much a novel as a set of thumbnails for a very long running TV soap attuned to well-established UK (social realist) and US (schmalz) markets. For the social realists, there is thumb-nailed poverty, rape and domestic violence. Etcetera. For the popcorn crowd, Bad characters like the Evil Nzinga are disposed of but the Good (Domnique & Laverne pages 111-112; Bummi & Kofi pages 187-188; and most blatantly Hattie & Penelope in the Epilogue) ride off into the sunset as the focus turns to soft and the credits roll. It’s a trope which is also found in Evaristo’s earlier Mr Loverman but in that better book there are main characters who are more fully developed and as a result they, as it were, earn their sunset. In this book, the happy endings are merely formulaic: try pages 111 - 112 for example.

The signature typographical style which uses line breaks instead of full stops does not really disguise the banality of much of the prose:

over time Shirley became an experienced schoolteacher who remained committed to giving the kids a fighting chance / realizing everything else was against them with such large classes and lack of resource and parents who didn’t have a clue how to help them with their homework / parents who’d left school early to work in a factory or learn a trade or be assigned a bunk bed in a Borstal … and so on from pages 234 to 236. 

The alliteration at the end of the quotation is not untypical; compare page 324 rozzers in riot gear, at the ready. I suppose it’s meant to breathe life into dead prose.

The narrator’s omniscience grated on me and as I tried to explain that to myself I hit on the word  condescending.  Ruritania is structured by condescensions.  And  they invite collusion, including that of the intended readers of this book.  Evaristo’s novel has more Diversity than a Coca-Cola advertisement but often enough she wheels out her characters seemingly just in order to satirise them (try page 334) and prove to her audience (perhaps only too willing to have it proved) that, really, for all their dreadlocks and veganism and theyism (etcetera) they're really no better than the rest of us, though we can of course all strive, can’t we?

That’s so true, vicar, would you like another cup of tea?

Friday, 6 March 2020

Review: Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds




Very few, if any, societies have ever  arrived at a workable and sustainable consensus about how to distribute desirable scarce goods. The problem is exacerbated when the goods identified as desirable, notably money and fame, are inherently scarce because relative. If you extend the range to include, for example, happiness or virtue or wisdom - well, then things might get a bit easier. If you can identify goods where your gain is not necessarily my loss, so much the better. But for many people that’s a bit too subtle; their understanding is limited to zero-sum games: there’s a cake and any bit you get is a bit I don’t get.

A recent British Prime Minister, David Cameron, praised those who took the sharp-elbowed approach. If you want something scarce, then force yourself to the front of the queue. If you knock over an old lady on the way there, well, that’s life which is about grabbing what you can. President Trump agrees; he has grabbed many things on his way to the top and he will do whatever it takes to stay there - say, dirt on Joe Biden’s son as quid pro quo for US military aid.

I grew up at a time when it was thought that the distributional problem could be solved in a consensual way if societies operated meritocratically: you should get more of the desirable goods only if you in some way merited them. Talent, hard work, a track record of success were among the measures of merit. Race, Class, Sex were irrelevant. Though it was rarely articulated bluntly meritocracy was also a blatant alternative to inheritance; if you were really going to be meritocratic, then the House of Lords had to go and inheritance of serious wealth had to go too.

All general theories have their problems. At Oxford in the 1960s, one of my leftist friends reckoned it a problem deserving of serious consideration (his father in the wine trade), How should the finest wines be distributed after the revolution? Clearly, ability to pay would no longer be acceptable (or possible). Would merit work? Could you demonstrate through attendance at wine tasting classes that you had a  palate deserving of a Premier Cru? And so on through many rounds of drink….

Nowadays, no one is very keen on meritocracy. The favoured alternative is representation though no one has yet produced a definitive tome listing all the relevant parameters for who should be represented and where. I have tried to do the math, and once you move into multi-dimensional (intersectional) representation it is very  hard to formulate what would count as a situation in which it would be true that For all  values of the variables X and Y, X is fairly represented in Y

But basically the where is fame and money and the who is specified in terms of a few identities: ethnicity (but how many ethnicities are there?) and sex and/or gender (with a lot of ongoing debate there: is the Board of Directors gender balanced if half are males by birth and men by identity and the other half women by identity but with male appendages still in place? Trans ideologists seem obliged to say that the answer to that is Yes).

Nobody seems much worried about class anymore because the working class, rather awkwardly, has its own identity politics: in the USA it’s Trump and in England it’s Brexit. The identity politics with which Douglas Murray is concerned is a middle class thing; it’s about access to money and fame.

For example, when (apparently Caucasian) Sierra Boggess was cast to play Maria in a production of West Side Story one objection on Twitter read “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour”  (Murray, pages 142-43).

Well, to me that’s just an inversion on a standard working class complaint against immigrants They come here and take our jobs. In this case, Puerto Ricans having come to mainland USA (as US citizens, they have always had free movement rights) now claim back jobs which have been stolen from them. This zero-sum idea of theft is central to identity politics, most notably in the doctrine of cultural appropriation. Nobody supposes either that immigrants make jobs happen or that culture grows by appropriation. Human beings just seem to find positive-sum thinking too hard.

But there is more to contemporary identity politics than non-meritocratic competition for scarce goods. There is a strong sectarian or theological element with which Murray is largely concerned and against which he argues and where I find very little to disagree with. The hate-filled bullying behaviour of some young people who think they have virtue on their side repeatedly reminds me both of the American witch hunt tradition and of Jew-baiting on the streets of Hitler’s Germany. It is not the politics of the democratic Left; it has more in common with the politics of the worst Right - including an extraordinary degree of racism which Murray documents.

 Leave aside the bullying, it is also the case that identity theologians secure their prominence - their five minutes of fame on Twitter - by finding ever-new impossible things for us to believe before  breakfast. Murray singles out what trans ideologists expect us to believe and makes a restrained case against, urging caution but also flagging up the ridiculous. Eventually I guess the impossible trans beliefs will go the way of the Holy Trinity; whether they know it or not, most of those who are still Christians are Unitarians not Trinitarians despite the residual efforts of England’s state church.

Meanwhile, the impossible beliefs are doing a great deal of harm, notably in university humanities and social science departments  which have cheerfully converted themselves into seminaries where nothing is studied or argued, and everything simply asserted and endlessly repeated  even if (as with Judith Butler’s prose) it is often confused or simply unintelligible.  

I thought Murray’s book very well argued and surprisingly nuanced for a writer whose metatags (Eton, Oxford, Henry Jackson society, neocon, Leaver,  ….. the Spectator) are so unpromising. The book is perhaps at its most effective when he looks to Martin Luther King for a defence of what later came to be called Big Tent politics. The general idea should be to find things we have in common, not ways of endlessly asserting the desire not to be common.

*
Recently, I tried to write a memoir of my years as an Oxford undergraduate, both personal and political. As concerns the political, I arrived in 1965 as an eighteen year old member of the Labour Party who had very recently knocked on his neighbours’ front doors to secure the election of a Labour government; three years’ later I graduated as a supporter or even member (I think I had a card) of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (which may or may not have had an apostrophe …). To put it anachronistically, during my three years at Oxford, I Woke.

But then trying to remember things I realised something which may now seem odd. However Woke I may have been - and this is not just true of me - that didn’t mean that you did not talk to the Unwoke (who were legion), did not debate with them, did not listen to them. And they reciprocated. It occurred to me, for example, that every week when he lectured, arch-liberal and critic of Marxism Isaiah Berlin pulled in a very full house and a significant part of that house was the Oxford Left which turned out in force, not to heckle or barrack, but to listen to the most mesmerising lecturer Oxford had on offer. I would not be pushing it if I said that when you took your place you looked around to make sure that your fellow lefterrati were there with you, rather as if you were at the theatre (which, of course, you were). If anyone had suggested that Isaiah Berlin should be No Platformed it would have produced bemusement or merriment. We had enough confidence in our own convictions not to need to suppress other people’s (and that may be one clue to understand where we have got to now).

It occurred to me that age might have made me rose tinted in thus presenting the Left as indulgently liberal so I looked for some external confirmation and found it indirectly in  - doyen of the Oxford Left - Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, originally published in 1987 and re-issued in a 2018 version which I am using. He writes about his time in Oxford where by 1966 he was already well-known as an activist and trouble-maker. That does not stop the local Conservative MP,

Monty Woodhouse from embarrassing me on more than one occasion He used to stop me in the street and say “I am to the left of the local Labour candidate [Evan Luard - TP] on immigration, on Vietnam, on Rhodesia and probably also on economic measures. But you and your friends will be voting, I take it, for him” To which I replied that we were voting for parties not individuals and moved off rapidly … (page 138)

So it was quite possible for a Tory toff (later the 5th Baron Terringon) and a revolutionary toff to josh in a civil way with each other on the streets of Oxford - and for Tariq Ali to tell the story twenty years’ later in a way which does credit to his opponent.

It’s true that very shortly after, end 1968-early 1969, quite a few of us did place one limit on our tolerance - just one, and after quite a lot of debate which in my case made me very familiar with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argues that free speech loses its privilege when the circumstances of an utterance constitute it into an incitement to violence of some kind. He gives an example: you should generally be free to say that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, but not to address those words to an already excited mob standing in front of the local corn dealer’s house. On this basis, I concluded -  and argued in meetings - that it was legitimate to try to stop Enoch Powell’s countrywide stump of political speeches since they constituted an incitement to violence, unintentional perhaps but their effect clear enough on streets which were becoming unsafe for black people. I had no problems with the idea of Powell addressing, say, a university seminar - indeed, I had attended one that he gave in Oxford and I simply sat a few feet away from him and listened. I agreed with Mill: circumstance makes a difference.

The blind spot in my thinking was the rather too easy assumption that we could take the law into our own hands. On the statute books, incitement was an offence so why not appeal to the state (as people do now)? After all, the state had more resources at its disposal than we did. Equally, the exception made for Powell was arrived at with some hesitation and doubt; it was a last line of resort not the first choice as it now seems to be (Murray provides examples).





Sunday, 1 March 2020

Review: Daniel Immerwahr How To Hide an Empire


I recall from fifty years ago trying to explain to a class of fifteen year olds who had me as their (unqualified) History teacher that a country could have an Empire without having territories dotted all over the globe and coloured red. I used the example of Imperial Russia which had built up its empire by extending its land borders in every possible direction, the new territories often enough specialised producers of desirable commodities (coal, copper, furs, hemp, tea, wine …  ) which could be shipped back to the heartlands. At the same time, Russia reckoned (rather perversely) that by extending its borders it made its already unbelievably long borders more secure. True, the extensions did place St Petersburg and Moscow farther away from frontiers which invading armies would have to breach in order to get started on a war of conquest but, equally, invaders might just settle for the asset-rich borderlands, as did Germany late in World War One.

There was one anomaly in this simple story, explained at the blackboard with many chalk arrows: Alaska, separated by a short stretch of sea from the Russian mainland. But - ha, ha - Russia sold Alaska to the USA and that, as it were, proved my case.

Alaska figures in Daniel Immerwahr’s extraordinary book as the largest bit of the Empire which America built up over the course of a couple of centuries but in ways which often gave the impression that there was no such thing as an American Empire. Empire, on the British or French models, was acquired by conquest; America just bought Alaska and that surely was different. It had already bought Louisiana and would go on buying - in World War One, the American Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark. In the very recent past, President Trump reprised the old idea with an offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. He was shocked by the rebuff.  After all, money can buy anything can't it so what's wrong with my money?

It’s a long time since I read a book like Immerwahr's where virtually every page tells me something I never knew or imagined, from big stories to little anecdotes. I am sure that many readers of this book will go around afterwards  accosting anyone who will listen with Did you know …? stories. Some are shocking like those which narrate the devastations wreaked on the Phillipines by successive occupiers (Spanish, American, Japanese) and on Puerto Rico; some are comic like the story of the US State Department laying territorial claim to three small islands which it had already long-ago laid claim to and indeed was currently occupying. They had an excuse: by the 1930s the USA had laid claim to so many Pacific islands (some even inhabited) that it was understandable that they had lost track.

Immerwahr emphasises how these many territories did not fit inside the model USA designed by the US Constitution; they were anomalies but anomalies with several different statuses. Some were reckoned to be on the path to full statehood (Alaska, Hawaii - they got it in 1959); some were slated for independence (the Philippines); some had appointed governors and some were under military administration. Most had some military purpose and still do.

Anomalous territories can, of course, be found all over the world. Europe is full of them, most of them continuing to exist because they provide the rich and powerful with tax havens and money laundering centres: the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (possessions of the British Crown); the City of London; Andorra (Franco-Spanish Bishops isn’t it?); Liechtenstein; Monaco; San Marino. In Rome, if you want to launder money, you just walk across the non-existent border between Italy and the Vatican State and straight into the Vatican Bank. 

Some anomalies are military: on the island of Cyprus, the large Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are wholly owned by the United Kingdom and are counted as British Overseas Territories, anthem God Save the Queen but as a nice anomaly, currency… the €uro. 

Immerwahr has interesting stories to tell about the impact of leased American military bases on local populations the world over. Some are about the ABC underside of military occupation: arrogance, brothels, and crime. Others are about what can be huge economic gains from trade; some are cultural: Immerwahr (in a fascinating account)  links the rise of the 1960s Liverpool music scene (the Beatles included) to the presence nearby of a very large US military installation.

That is just one example of the ways in which he has done some very diligent research and turned up interesting by-ways which would  have been missed had be started from a more theoretically rigid approach than is evident in his four hundred page book. I read all of it with interest and quite often amazement. For once, I find myself in complete accord with the puff printed on the cover of my copy.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Review: Pascal Boyer, Minds Make Societies





Human beings are born with big brains which grow bigger. The internal structure of those brains is amazingly complex. But there are long traditions in philosophy and social science which suggest that from the perspective of trying to understand how human societies and cultures are possible and why they are as they are, human beings might just as well have sawdust between their ears. Most often, it is simply assumed that human brains are so made as to be plastic to whatever impressions other humans try to implant there - that is at the heart of Locke’s understanding of how humans relate to their world. Children are blank slates onto which anything may be written. That is a position which is also to be found in Wittgenstein. 

At a slightly higher level of sophistication or stupidity, according to taste, the twentieth century produced leading psychologists - B F Skinner in the USA and Pavlov in the USSR - who thought that the way to make psychology into a science was to eliminate from its vocabulary the human mind and to study exclusively correlations between visible inputs and visible outputs: the visible reactions of pigeons and rats to the provision of electric shocks or food pellets. The idiocy of this approach culminated in B F Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) which Noam Chomsky savaged in 1959 in one of the great scientific book reviews of the twentieth century: I was surprised to find no mention of it or of Chomsky in Pascal Boyer’s book.

Chomsky can claim to be a main source of inspiration for the kind of approach to culture and society which Boyer introduces and elaborates in this excellent book. But not the only source and the other sources Boyer explains as he goes along. 

There has been the inspiration of that neo-Darwinism which makes extensive use of game theory as a powerful theory to think with. This approach dates back at least to John Maynard Smith’s Evolution and the Theory of Games (1982). (Maynard Smith was Professor in the university where I taught, which explains why I made some use of his work in my own 1980s doctorate on Chomskyan linguistics).

Next comes the contribution of what we now call cognitive science which is very happy to study human minds and to do so in close collaboration with those more interested in artificial minds, sharing not just vocabulary but significant theoretical assumptions (about modularity, for example). So no one is now fazed when a theorist writes of human minds computing results.

Then - and perhaps not yet as well known or obvious - there is the contribution of  those theorists who have developed sophisticated models of communication starting from the idea of intentions and recognition of intentions rather than from the idea of communication codes

Finally, benefitting from these theoretical advances, observational developmental psychology has been able to take giant steps in understanding what young children bring to the world in which they find themselves. Wittgenstein once called the babble of the baby “nonsense”; developmental psychologists have called him out, showing how it develops and what it is doing. Likewise, the drawings of young children develop in  reconstructible stages which have a high degree of cross cultural universality and which  - importantly - proceed independently of surrounding visual cultures. Young children may look at adult pictures but they  do not copy them; they have their own ideas about what a picture should look like.

Boyer introduces us to a number of old topics to which (for want of a better shorthand) cognitive anthropology has contributed fresh understanding: tribalism, the madness of crowds, the origins and persistence of religious belief, the family, social justice, and - very interestingly and originally in chapter Six - limits to our own capacity to understand our own cultures and societies. At time, Boyer is able to quote  extensive research support for his arguments; at others, and as he acknowledges, we are still at the hand waving stage - knowing roughly the direction in  which we must travel but not yet having undertaken the journey.

He makes no use of the term meme, though he discusses its limitations towards the end of the book, nor does he use the term learnability which I have found useful: the things which cultures/societies present to new members as things to be learnt can connect more or less well to unlearnt dispositions, intuitions, computational capacities. Thus, there is quite a lot of support for the idea (for example) that atonal music is not learnable as a first music and that, in contrast, we are born adapted to tonal music. Boyer adds  to this an interesting claim that there is an unlearnt ability to improve on a corrupt version of a piece of tonal music - a piece with wrong notes etc.

At the end of his book (pages 272-76) Boyer tries to find a way to exit us from the endless debates about Nature and Culture by claiming that his new paradigm transcends that  folk psychology / folk sociology opposition. I am not convinced his argument succeeds though I can see why it would be politically helpful for it to do so. All of Boyer’s arguments depend on the idea that as a result of very long term neo-Darwinian evolution human beings are born quite well equipped or adapted in specific manners to make sense of and be able to operate in the worlds in which they are most likely to find themselves - there is an unpleasant duty upon researchers to paint the picture of those terrible worlds in which this will not be true. That adaptation helps explain how and why our social and cultural worlds are as they are.

But that idea of pre-adaptation just is a theory of human nature, even though it is primarily a theory about the human mind as something which shows trans-historical and cross-cultural uniformities and has little or nothing to do with blood or bodies or IQ. But the idea, even made that clear, is anathema to the Wittgensteinian cultural apologists, the social constructionists, and the politically correct. They may not (probably will not) understand that the theory is one which is interested in what humans have in common, not what differentiates them. They will just hear the word “Nature” and reach for their guns. Maybe it’s time to face up to the challenge rather than try to make it go away.


Monday, 3 February 2020

Review: Madeline Miller, Circe




If I was Madeline Miller, I would ask my publisher - rather firmly - to two do things when this book is next reprinted. First, remove all the product endorsements which run to eight sides (including front and back covers) on my copy. She does not need endorsements from the Wall Street Journal or the Daily Mail, from The Lady and Woman & Home, from all the other puffers who get to contribute their two penn’orth. Read enough of their combined puffing and it will get in the way of reading this book for what it is, a considerable achievement as a novel which requires some reflection to appreciate and probably modest prose to express. Second, she should ask for a decent cover, perhaps one entirely devoid of ornament as it would have been if Fitzcarraldo had published the book. But I’d compromise on something a bit less garish. You can’t have everything.

I am probably in the majority as a reader with a sketchy and uncertain knowledge of Greek mythology. I get the general idea and in case I don’t Miller reminds me, though never didactically. Three things are very important: Greek gods are ranked in importance (monotheism got rid of that idea); they mix and mess with humans all the time (something claimed only for Christ among the monotheisms) and, in contrast to mortals, they are immortal and cannot even enter as visitors the underworld of the regular dead (in the monotheisms, either there is one afterlife for all or else Heaven and Hell).

Immortality poses a problem for the novelist. Human mortality maps neatly into the idea that a novel should have a beginning, middle, and end. The immortality of a god poses a problem and it is a problem with which Miller has to cope, since her first-person narrator, Circe, is immortal. The drawback of immortality is that a god’s life can only be a story which unfolds in terms of  and then and then and then. Such stories become boring sooner or later. How does Miller deal with that?

In my edition of 333 pages she situates the rape of Circe at pages 164-165, and it is only the tiniest liberty to call that the exact mid-point. It must be deliberate, to create a turning point.

Circe gives birth to her son,  Telegonus, not quite two-thirds of the way through (page 212). What will happen to Telegonus then becomes the main focus of the reader’s attention for the simple reason that Telegonus, son of mortal Odysseus, is also mortal and immortal Athena threatens his life. A third of the book remains in which we will discover if Telegonus will live or die. And that is not an and then and then and then story. There is a wonderful emotional climax at pages 244 - 47 which plays on the theme of Greater Love in the form of a mother’s love for her child and as the tension from that subsides I thought that the novel could have been brought to an end, the outcome unresolved. But then Miller gives the book a new direction leading to a final emotional climax in which the opposition between immortality and mortality takes centre stage. (I won’t spoil the actual plot line).

There are only a few gags in the book, all of which I think involve some kind of half-anachronism: That’s the worst prophecy I’ve ever heard says Circe at page 86. Otherwise, there seems to be ( but wait for my conclusion) minimal anachronism. 

There is a massive and central play with Greek mythology and specifically Homer’s Odyssey or - perhaps more accurately - the deployment of Miller’s considerable classical learning to create a novel which runs in constant unspoken dialogue with the originals, and much more inventively than, say, West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a very strong novel, very well written by a woman with a woman (or, at least, goddess) as the central first-person narrator. Some reviewers clearly think their job is done when they label it feminist and even MeToo. That’s one reason why I think the eight pages of journalistic puff are a mistake: it leads readers to think that this is a book which will provide another obliging confirmation of what they already believe. But some readers prefer novels which aim a bit higher than that,

Just to be a bit awkward, if there was a moment when I felt the book just a bit too American it was when Circe gazes on an Odysseus initially described as if simply a hunk out of Hollywood (see for example page 188). Circe is a strong woman, no doubt at all about that, and a strong woman needs a strong man. But a Hollywood one? It's true, some disillusionment does set in as part of Circe's own self-discovery. Odysseus is swapped for a younger model, his son.

Less frivolously, there is a narrative thread in which Circe moves from someone who has the gift of very considerable (but rather ad hoc) magic powers -  a goddess-witch - to someone who comes to believe in the power of her own will, as if human. But when it comes to wishing for things which we can’t have, the triumph of the will is something up there with magic and miracles and prayer. We can't always get what we want, however hard we may want it. Human beings are so circumstanced that they cannot always win out over what resists or opposes them, however hard they pray, however hard they wish for miracles, however strong their will. They often need others to help them change the ways things are. Or they just have to wait for things to change,anyway. Circe triumphs as an individual, which is perhaps only right in a novel. But the triumph of the will is both a characteristically American Dream and a trap which has lured whole countries to destruction.



Monday, 13 January 2020

Review essay: Roger Scruton on Sexual Desire

The English philosopher Roger Scruton has died at the age of 75. I always thought his books on art and aesthetics very good and assigned them for student reading. At the same time I thought his politics bad.  The review of his book Sexual Desire, republished here for the first time since its original publication in 1986, sets itself the task of driving a wedge between the philosophy and the politics. If I was re-writing it I would be more critical of a Kantianism which is too morally serious to accommodate the playful elements which are an ordinary part of human sexuality and that would open up a different and rather bigger wedge. But if a smaller one is enough to do the job, that's fine.

Click on images to make them readable ...







Sunday, 12 January 2020

Review: Jon Day, Homing




This is a book where the fascination is in the detail. But to make detail fascinating requires a great deal of sense and skill. Without those, a writer will simply get bogged down, followed in short order by the reader. Jon Day succeeds in the task he has set himself by making frequent back and forth switches between his family life, his pigeons, the long scientific backlog of research into pigeon homing, literary treatments of pigeons, the more general  themes of home and homing, and so on. In other words, he does not behave like a Victorian novelist who reckons that until you have done the local topography exhaustively you mustn’t switch to the next topic. (Those geography lessons might be regarded as antecedents of the modern academic article’s  literature review …).

I read the book because I have admired Jon Day’s work as a book reviewer, work in which he is unusually thorough and insightful. This book also has an understated thoroughness to it and plenty of insight. It’s a very patient book, as if the work of a master craftsman. It belongs to the booming genre of creative non-fiction which has proved a haven for university lecturers who have little enthusiasm for writing unreadable and unread academic papers but who do actually know an awful lot about an awful lot of things and would like to share the knowledge.

Jon Day is a King’s College London university lecturer in English who cycles off to work, to his job  down the road,  without making any fuss about it in these pages. But in the context of settling down and starting a family, he develops a passion for pigeon racing, builds a pigeon loft in his garden, joins his local club, and very soon starts to compete in the races which are at the heart of the hobby.

As I understand it, pigeon fancying was one of those elaborate, working-class pastimes which developed in mostly urban areas in the Victorian period and were pursued exclusively by men. Those men were often migrants from the countryside, like those agricultural labourers who left the land of East Anglia for the not so far away slums of East London, a shortish train journey to Liverpool Street able to completely change your world.

Like dog racing and gooseberry fancying, the pastimes developed an elaborate language, lore, and extensive organisational infrastructure. And like academic life,  they were highly competitive activities. So the camaraderie of the clubs was always infused with rivalries which might break out into hostilities. Jon Day is a relatively young (born 1984) London professional getting involved with the pastime at the end of its life. The working class life into which it fitted now barely exists, certainly not in London’s East End. The big factories have gone, the docks,  the warehouses, the printing works, the breweries (Brick Lane was once dominated by Truman’s vast working brewery; now it is only the shell which remains). He has read the pigeon breeding and racing  manuals which even though they may be over a hundred years old still guide the novice into the fancy, but one of the few things he doesn’t do in this book is situate his pastime in this social past. My guess is that he could do that well if he wanted to. Maybe the archives are there.

I am sure we are going to read a lot more from Jon Day; he is a very good writer. A quick search shows he has an academic book out in 2020. He has already published other creative fiction on the topics of cycling in the city and fishing. 

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Review: Bram Stoker, Dracula




The story usually told is that the idea for Penguin Books came to Allen Lane when searching a 1930s railway station bookstall for something to read and finding only trash. I was reminded of that the other day when, having finished my book on a long outward journey to Leeds, looked for something to read on the way back. At first, it seemed that the W H Smith at this major rail station did not have any books at all, only arrays of magazines in which you could read about the latest outfit with which your Duchess of choice has wowed us; what adorable thing some royal child has contrived to do (smile adorably, wave adorably,….); and for those with more cosmopolitan tastes: What the Kardashians Did This Week.

But, losing hope and turning away, I spotted a very small and dismal display of books, mostly down-market self-help and genre novels. I picked the only one which looked as if it might be tolerable. I had never read Dracula but of course knew of it and knew that it was published in the nineteenth century (1897 in fact) and inferred that it might therefore have some meat to it. The publisher? Penguin Random House, though in conjunction with the EBC (the Establishment Broadcasting Corporation) which has done some adaptation of this now out-of-copyright work.

Dracula is a good read. It is a Victorian book and therefore long - 421 pages in my edition, much longer than a train journey’s read. Even I, who do not count myself a modern reader, found the final chase just a bit too drawn out. I am sure the EBC will find a way of dealing with that and adjusting the story to our modern attention spans.

But I liked the central stylistic choice in which the main characters take turns to write up each day’s events. I thought a long passage in which a clearly vulnerable Mina Harker is being left unattended very well-done: a passage which you read with increasing impatience and a growing desire to shout out to the bishops and knights You  have left your Queen unprotected! 

I was intrigued by a bit-part character who delivers a fascinating discourse on tombstones as fake-news frauds: the bodies aren’t underneath and even if they are, not the bodies of those memorialised above. I knew that there was a common Victorian horror of being buried alive (it did happen and the fear is played on in Dracula) but this was a different take on graveyards, about which I write in the book Between Remembering and Forgetting advertised in the immediately preceding Blog post here. 

And in a rare passage of light relief, Stoker has great fun  evading Victorian censorship in a passage in which a bit-character speaks with many blooms and bloods allowing the reader to reconstruct a discourse peppered with blooming and bloody. (Stoker worked as a London theatre manager at a time when stage plays were subject to fearsome pre-production censorship and must have had intimate knowledge of the problem). The whole passage made our dreary censored F***s and B******s look mechanical by comparison - and, indeed, they are increasingly mechanical secured by prurient little Apps. and their conglomerate users.

Those incidental passages are not the heart of the book, but they are perhaps places in which the author comes alive and escapes a little from the constraints of fidelity to his characters which he set himself when he decided to  use their diaries and letters as the vehicle for telling their story. Interestingly, both passages involve rude mechanicals speaking in faithfully-transcribed dialect; from his work in theatre,  Bram Stoker would have been intimately acquainted with how Shakespeare deploys his own mechanicals.

I won't spoil the plot by summarising it or telling you What Happens At the End.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Advertisement: Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting


 Click on Image to Magnify


A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15

Enquiries to     degreezeropublisher@gmail.com   or     patemantrevor@gmail.com

Regular UK stockists include Waterstones

Copies  available on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0993587968/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&keywords=between+remembering+and+forgetting&qid=1582146376&sr=1-4