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Friday 24 May 2024

Book Blogging since 2012: A Retrospective

 


My original reviews of books mentioned in this essay can be located by typing author and title into the search bar above.

 

I buy, read and review books, but not always in that order: sometimes I imagine a review then track down the book. I don’t hold library tickets so always have skin in the game, the unread books on my shelves failed investments.  The rewards are the pleasures (but also irritations) of reading and the more controllable pleasures of writing, to which is added such satisfaction as can be got from Google’s page view counter.

A review in a print journal might lead me to a book; as do footnote references and, latterly, a taste for reading and re-reading classics.  I browse in town centre bookshops but that challenges my sensibilities. It’s the wallpaper. The garish covers and lurid blurbs are the graphic design version of over-excited talk shows.  With exceptions (Penguin Classics and Modern Classics, Fitzcarraldo) the current state of book cover art is decidedly down market, comparing unfavourably with the stylish packaging of own brand goods in supermarkets

Blurbs are less reliable than small print food labels and not always to the advantage of the author. I have accumulated a selection of trade misdescriptions and reprise three here:

Faber published Alex Preston’s In Love and War (2017) and the reviewer at GQ made it onto cover telling us that it’s a book for the beach, “the perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”. I proceed to the novel: the hero Esmond dies horribly under Gestapo torture and his lover Ada dies in a concentration camp. Gin and Auschwitz? Really?

The 2018 Penguin paperback cover for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time quotes from a review in The Observer claiming that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which cuts Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading part; it puts her on a level with Bernardine Evaristo. I did go to the original Observer review by Taiye Selasi, more subtle than the blurb extract, but if you want to sample the stunning prose of which Smith is capable - showing not saying - go to pages 321-30 of the paperback to find a beautifully structured and   emotionally-charged scene set in a small north London pizza joint.

In 2018 Penguin published Sally Vickers’ The Librarian and Adam Phillips was there on cover noting that “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity”. Well, I admire Adam Phillips and he sealed the purchase. The quote is actually from a review of another book by Vickers (Cousins) though as I started to read I could see how it worked for this one too:

“ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer. “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’

I felt like the victim of a Borat prank. Adam Phillips was writing tongue in cheek and I had bought a Mills & Swoon.

 

*

Most of us let that wonderful invention, Microsoft Word, run the writing show. There are hazards, especially for pedants.

In 2020 Princeton University Press published an academic monograph on loan words written by the British professor Richard Scholar. The cover of the book spells out its topic: ÉMIGRÉS French Words that Turned English. It’s a clever title because émigré is itself a loan word. But when I type it in lower case Microsoft automatically supplies two diacritical marks. That’s surely wrong. As an assimilated loan word emigré requires only that one diacritical mark to guide us to acceptable pronunciation: think café and naïve and compare with hotel which requires no guidance (those three words printed now as Microsoft delivered them).

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on capitalised CAFÉ though in French accents over capital letters are fairly optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café”. In short, if someone asks whether written English uses diacritical marks, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly, thank goodness. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different for lower case and upper case. Don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. But on such matters Microsoft can be plus royaliste que le roi. And Princeton University Press even more so with two accents on capitalised EMIGRES which do not appear when I type it. Dear Pedantic Reader, do you vote for two, one or no diacritical marks on the capitalised word made from the letters E M I G R E S?

There are real issues about the currently popular use of diacritical marks to render Roman alphabet versions of languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. It’s a genuine question whether they undermine lazy colonialist mindsets or are themselves just a legacy of colonialism. There is a good basis for a case study in the rendering of spoken Yoruba in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s accomplished novel My Sister, The Serial Killer (2019).

But hold fire; there is an App now in common use by publishers, especially in the USA, which dumbs down texts, especially academic ones. The App may have a human incarnation as a copy editor following an inclusive rule book.

Richard Scholar’s book is an academic monograph aimed at a small audience of readers familiar with French and English literature especially of the eighteenth century.  It severely tests my own knowledge. But at page 114 I read this, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) ….”.

What has gone wrong? The App has spotted a proper name and provided an explanatory gloss. Give it “William Shakespeare” and it would hand back “The English=speaking Stratford-upon-Avon poet and playwright …” I guess the idea is to get the book into the hands of 101 readers; but it won’t when the book is not pitched at them. And for actual readers it is just bizarre and, when repeated, reads as standardised patter which cuts across whatever personal style the author may have. The App knows nothing of prosody and never reads aloud to itself.

I can offer a hand proof that this App really is at work in Scholar’s book. At page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on his most famous painting. Now that would be useful 101 stuff. But how come the gloss isn’t there?  In the immediate vicinity of this bit of text there is no one’s name present to jolt the App into life.

*

Bad books get published; we all know that. But they are bad in different ways. There are the books which read like drafts of Ph.Ds. In a previous life, I was obliged to read such things; it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. It’s exasperating to read a printed book where the work clearly hasn’t been done. In 2011 Oxford University Press published Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run - disjointed, repetitive, and inconclusive where it needs to be decisive. The last problem was undoubtedly connected to problems of access (#openthevaticanarchives) but it also involves care in choices between modal verbs and adverbs to ensure that the text does not become simply evasive. Better to state clearly what the important question is and record that in the present state of knowledge it cannot be answered.  In a Ph D, modality matters.

Rather different is the case of the student who has received criticism, records it, and then carries on as if nothing has happened. In Emma Dabiri’s interesting Don’t Touch My Hair (2018) it happens twice. There is a long rant about cultural appropriation (pages 178ff) at the end of which the reader is offered “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, just passed off as if duty done. In the second case, someone is actually quoted taking issue. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she then quotes an email from Ron Eglash who tries to draw her away from the Search for Roots toward something more structural:

 

“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)

 

These words just sit there. And the reader will no doubt go on calling out cultural appropriation and searching for roots. I’m with Audre Lorde.

Then there are books which have clearly involved a lot of googling and maybe not much else. As someone who likes to sit at home, I cannot plausibly deny it. But it’s an art and you need to do it extremely well.  Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk make it work but we lesser artists easily fail.  This is true of Tiffany Watt Smith’s very short Schadenfreude (2018) which though it has a German loan word for its title comes up in the text with “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”. (Sound familiar?). 

But now, as a standout example of modern internet-enabled prose we have Peter Ackroyd’s cut and paste The English Soul (2024), a sort of hardback Wikipedia into which Ackroyd’s contribution is concentrated as a string of one-liners; I quote four and if you don’t like them there are others quoted in the full review of the book

On Thomas More, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (page 73)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

Well, bless my English soul. Trot it out often enough and it becomes trite or simply vacuous.

 

*

Finally, there are translations which I do read. Nearly sixty years ago I was given L’Etranger to help improve my schoolboy French. A girlfriend who went on to become a Professor of French wanted to level me up. I thought to speed the process by setting beside it a copy of Penguin’s The Outsider, baffled to discover that the two texts didn’t seem to match up. I was unaware that I had bought Stuart Gilbert’s Variations on a Theme by Albert Camus. I have been wary ever since and when I’m going to read a book translated from French I’ll usually buy the French to put alongside. In that way, I was able to confirm that a sentence in the English translation of Annie Ernaux’s The Years which made no sense does in fact invert the order of events in the French original.

But what can you do when reading translations from languages you don’t know? Well, it can be contextually obvious that all is not well. Ismail Kadare’s The Concert (1988) was translated by Barbara Bray from the French translation from the Albanian. Set in Communist Albania, the version I read is peopled by Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries and one is surprised not to find Whitehall in Tirana. What cultural blindness blocked the use of Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers? Out of the same failure of imagination we find Albanian Communists under pressure giving vent to Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and expressing frustration over the whole blessed evening (170). Unless I’m missing something (it happens) the register is so obviously wrong that it casts doubt on the whole translation. (Is there an Albanian reader out there who can confirm or deny?)

 

 

 

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Wednesday 15 May 2024

Dr Keate’s Curate. A Letter from William Grant Broughton (1788 – 1853), later Bishop of Australia

 



 

 

In Great Britain, the technology which made possible the production of cheap, machine-made envelopes was developed in the 1840s, also the decade in which postage stamps came into general use. The habit of early stamp collectors was to tear stamps from envelopes which were then discarded. The letter enclosed might be kept but for future readers the identity of the “Dear Sir” or “Dear Mother” might be lost forever; the envelope would have answered the question instantly. By the end of the Victorian period millions of envelopes had been binned in pursuit of the most popular of the century’s many destructive hobbies.

Prior to the 1840s letters were sent as folded sheets of paper (now called entires) with the addressee’s name written on the outside. There was no stamp to tear off and, usually, no sheet to discard though sometimes a letter might be enclosed within a wrapper and might also be separated from the contents.

It requires little knowledge to conclude that the name and address on this entire letter of 31 January 1827 makes it worth looking at more closely. Dr Keate lives on in the book of records as the headmaster who on just one day succeeded in flogging eighty Etonians.. Who would write to such a man and what might they write about?

The contents are cross-written and when transcribed come to a Microsoft total of 1082 words. They begin “Dear Sir” and close “Your faithful humble servant W.G.Broughton”. He was Dr Keate’s curate in the Hampshire parish of Hartley Wespall where the letter was written.  Dr Keate was a pluralist, awarded this particular living in 1818 by the Dean and Chapter of Windsor and held until his death; he is buried inside its parish church, a prominent tomb much polished. His son succeeded as Rector.

The curate begins by reporting on the discharge of his duties:

previous to leaving home I made an adjudication of the 30 blankets and though they did not arrive until after my departure Mrs Neville distributed them according to my directions. This was before the cold weather set in and from such of the poor as I have yet had communication with I have received very grateful acknowledgements to you for your charitable consideration of their wants.

Both vicar and curate were High Church Tories who accepted that they had duties to the deserving poor. Married with two children living, Broughton also had duties to his family; he was conscious that lack of funds had obliged him to forego an Exhibitioner’s place at Cambridge in favour of a job in London with the East India Company. Only an unexpected legacy from an uncle enabled him much later to enter Pembroke College to study mathematics, graduating in 1818 at the age of thirty. In the same year he took Holy Orders and married a childhood sweetheart. He has been at Hartley Wespall since then.

But now he is leaving and the rest of the letter runs through the arrangements he is making or suggesting to Dr Keate. As for his replacement, he offers several names but concludes by recommending Mr Procter despite the fact that the Bishop (of Winchester) is against him, suspecting Evangelical tendencies, a canard which Mr Procter repudiates:

As the best mode of disproving the charge brought against him, and of undeceiving the Bishop, he is about to publish by subscription a Volume of Sermons, which will explain his real sentiments.

Mr Procter got the job but did not last and I cannot promise you that he published any Sermons. But Mr Broughton did and, more importantly, in 1826 had published a reluctant defence of the view (supported by the methods of the new German philology) that Bishop Gauden and not Charles the Martyr was the author of the EIKON BASILIKE. This impressed the equally reluctant Bishop of Winchester who then offered Broughton the curacy of the parish of Farnham, equipped with a fine residence and grounds being prepared for the bishop’s own eventual retirement. Broughton accepted and is about to leave Harley Wespall..

Farnham is just sixteen miles from Stratfield Saye and Broughton was soon introduced to the Duchess and then to the Duke of Wellington installed there by a grateful nation. Wellington was impressed by this new but no longer young curate and as Constable of the Tower of London added the chaplaincy there to Broughton’s portfolio. In 1828 Wellington – now Prime Minister – told the Colonial Office that the Reverend Broughton was just the man needed to replace the outgoing Archdeacon of Sydney. Broughton, who had never travelled farther abroad than the East India Company’s London offices, accepted. The salary of £2000 per year promised financial security for his family and offered some compensation for what would be a long and still hazardous journey. He became the first (and only) Bishop of Australia and a significant and controversial figure in the history of the colony, the subject of a full-length biography by G P Shaw (1978) – on which i have drawn - and more recent discussions focussed on his involvement in policy towards Aboriginal populations.

He died on a visit to England in 1853 and is commemorated in Canterbury Cathedral with a chest tomb on which he lies as if a medieval knight at rest from his labours; an exact copy can be found in Sydney’s Anglican cathedral.

 

TRANSCRIPTION

Hartley Wespall January 31st 1827

Dear Sir

The severity of the weather and the state of the roads in Kent prevented my returning hither till Saturday last and on Monday I was again on the wing to Farnham and back again yesterday. It has therefore been out of my power to reply sooner to your letters of Jan’y 6th and 27th. First of the first previous to leaving home I made an adjudication of the 30 blankets and though they did not arrive until after my departure Mrs Neville distributed them according to my directions. This was before the cold weather set in and from such of the poor as I have yet had communication with I have received very grateful acknowledgements to you for your charitable consideration of their wants. From what occurred yesterday at Farnham I have reason to think that I shall be required to be there for the first time on Sunday February 18th . Mr Procter who is to make way at Bentley for Mr Austen will take my duty here on that day and the 25th. I am quite in the dark as to Mr Hadow’s [ sp?] present intentions. In answer to the letter which arrived when you were here I sent him an exact account of the emoluments of the curacy, house & premises, duty &c (with which however I should have thought him already acquainted from having lived here with me) and in an answer to a subsequent letter I replied to his enquiries as to the probability of obtaining a supply of pupils in the neighbourhoods. Since this I have not heard from him; but you are probably by this time acquainted with his final decision. I have not the slightest knowledge of Mr Kerr or of his family As however I found from the Bishop’s communication yesterday that they are known and noticed by him I conclude they are acceptable. This however is now unimportant, as Mr Kerr writes to me that he wishes to withdraw his application thinking the house & premises too extensive for a single man. Mr Dobson some times ago told me that upon the same grounds that he should decline it even if you made him the offer. Mr Bricknell has taken the curacy at Hartley Wintney, nor do I think that there is any clergyman in the neighbourhood who could undertake regularly for the period you mention. Mr Procter, whom the late arrangements at Farnham have cast out of house and home, requests me to make you the offer of his service, for as many weeks as you desire; that is until you have got … a permanent curate or until it may be convenient to the gentleman appointed by you to enter upon the duties of the parish. His charge is 2 guineas a Sunday and he will relinquish the employment at any time at [tear in letter from when the seal was broken] week’s notice from you. I must not omit to say that the Bishop declined to license Mr P to the Curacy at Farnham. He assigned no reason of course; but the impression upon Mr Procter’s mind is that his Ldship had been persuaded that he was of the Evangelical school. This however he strenuously denies and assured me that he had a decided dislike to their tenets The circumstance which has given rise to the imputation he thinks can be only that he has in preaching a naturally energetic manner (which indeed shows itself in his conversation & ordinary deportment) and that this has attracted to church some persons who before he came went always to chapel.  As the best mode of disproving the charge brought against him, and of undeceiving the Bishop, he is about to publish by subscription a Volume of Sermons, which will explain his real sentiments. As far as a single interview to be depended on Mr Procter certainly gave me the impression that he was a man of talent & honesty. He is one of the Bye-Fellows of Peter House; and a gentleman residing in his parish spoke of him to me as exemplary in his moral character, in the discharge of all his duties and especially in his attention to the poor. I have thought it right to inform you of all I knew about him good or bad in order that you might better be able to decide whether you would avail yourself of his services or not. I shall see him again next Monday and hope in the mean time to receive your answer. It was my intention to have left Canterbury last Monday week and taken Eton on my way down to Hartley but the great fall of snow which we had in Kent, by obliging me to postpone my departure til the end of the week, frustrated this plan and as I expect tomorrow to have my two pupils with me I really am afraid it will hardly be in my power to have the pleasure of coming over at this time. If you would be so good as to make a memorandum of any further questions you wish to ask concerning the parish I will send you the best answers in my power.  Next Sunday I am to preach a Sermon for the Relief of the Manufacturers and the next day we shall collect what we can in the parish. If you have not already contributed to the full extent of your intention I should be happy to put down your name for a small sum at the head of the list. I have not yet received any communication from the lady you mention respecting her son. I beg you to be assured that I have never for one moment doubted of your inclination to serve and assist me in the matter of pupils, or in any other manner as far as circumstances would admit and my thanks I am sure are due to you for these our good wishess. There are a few fixtures here belonging to me: which the best way will be to have appraised and send to you a list of them and a valuation. They are such as my successor would most probably wish to take. I left Mrs Broughton and children quite well: I shall be very happy to hear as good an account of Mrs Keate and yours. With best remembrances to all I am Dear Sir Your faithful humble servant W: G: Broughton [he uses colons not stops after his initials]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday 30 April 2024

On Difficulty and Obfuscation

 

 

Parliamentarians of the English Civil War period expressed the hope that one day the laws of England might be compressed into “the bigness of a pocket book”. That still gets quoted because it expresses a common feeling that things which affect our lives ought to be intelligible to us. We don’t want to break a law because we don’t understand it and, equally, we do want to defend ourselves in language which is our own. Cromwellians thought that the heart of the problem was not failure to be clear and concise but that the powerful and their lawyers benefitted from obfuscation. I think they were at least half right.

But the successes of the natural sciences over recent centuries are inseparable from the development of languages which only a very small number of specialists can really expect to understand and deploy. We accept the difficulties of mathematics and scientific theories as a price we must pay for extraordinary achievements of engineering (in the broadest sense) from which everyone can in principle benefit. We accept that most of us do not have talent and will not have time to get inside what scientists understand. There are no short cuts; you just have to be very talented, willing to work hard and not envy the very occasional prodigy who seems to understand effortlessly.

But in relation to the world of lived experience - the Lebenswelt of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy – it’s still thought we should be able to understand that experience ourselves though perhaps occasionally accepting the help of those proficient in some theoretical knowledge of which we have only a vague understanding.  Sign up with a counsellor or analyst and you expect them to know something you don’t. Equally, you might well expect them to be able to make relevant parts of their thinking accessible to you in some way. How else could therapy work? It’s not supposed to be magical or mystical.

Donald Winnicott thought that making his thinking accessible was part of what would make it therapeutically effective. He gave radio talks and wrote essays which any moderately well-educated reader could understand. The contrast between, say, false self and real self lends itself to fairly ready understanding and can be illustrated with examples. Of course, some would now object that it encapsulates some kind of humanist myth or ideology. If so, that would also be true of Jacques Lacan’s early use of a parallel contrast between the empty word (parole vide) and the full word (parole pleine). Both sets of contrasts point towards interventions a practising therapist could deploy. But therapeutically useful ideas can, in fact, come from anywhere. The concept of gaslighting takes its name from a successful film (Gaslight 1944) the story line of which gives a very clear exemplification of a kind of psychological manipulation which the term accurately identifies.

But there are those who claim to illuminate the world of lived experience but do so in prose which is either difficult or obfuscating. And it is sometimes difficult to know which is the case. Roland Barthes wrote that clarity is the virtue of prose which is designed to persuade. But not everyone wants to persuade.

Some writing is more like musing or ruminating in which the author is primarily addressing themself; this is true of many passages in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. The reader’s task then becomes that of trying to work out what is the problem which has set off the rumination and where the musing might be headed.  Some will give up, thinking that the author is ducking the job a writer is supposed to undertake.

Other writers may just want to jolt you into thinking afresh and use whatever devices they reckon might yield that result. The danger is that we don’t get beyond their opening move. When Wittgenstein offers an (oracular?) “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him” it’s easy just to stare at the words and sigh, “Such wisdom!” rather than asking, “How do you know that?”, “Why shouldn’t we understand a lion who could speak?” In fact, since Wittgenstein wrote there has been great progress in characterising the structure and functions of things like chimpanzee calls. Lions may just be less approachable. The case illustrates a general problem with much philosophy: if it tries to rule a priori (without the need for evidence) that certain things are impossible it may subsequently be upstaged by empirical evidence demonstrating the contrary. Early Wittgenstein-inspired academics writing about human language were remarkably naïve, supposing that languages were really all rather like their own, and backed up by some local equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. Then linguists started to look seriously at how creoles develop and that upset several applecarts.

Finally (at least for the length of this piece), there are the sad cases. Early on in life, academics working in the human sciences discover that a well-trodden route to fame lies in being allusive, difficult and downright obscure. Though novelists may have been the first to realise that there were bones you could throw to the professors, other writers and academics themselves have more than caught up. The later work of Jacques Lacan is something suitable only to be pored over in long, inconclusive seminars and unread research outputs; it does not connect to any obvious therapeutic practice.  If you invest so much time in what is really theological study, it is very hard to conclude that your god may not be all you’ve hoped for. Back in 1979, Richard Wollheim (the centenary of whose birth has recently been celebrated) wrote a long piece in the New York Review of Books after reading a great deal of Lacan’s work. At the end he simply remarked “It’s not really my cup of tea”. But no young academic who has just completed a Ph D on Lacan and now hoping for its publication can afford such dismissive disinvestment from very recent labours. 

Imitating rebarbative prose is not the same thing as deploying someone’s theories to advance understanding. That distinction may be a useful guide to separating the difficult from the obfuscating. A difficult or relatively difficult theorist - say, Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault – can inspire new work which extends the application of a theory to new fields and maybe in the course of doing that introduce some amendments into the original theory. In contrast, imitative writing does no more than add to the corpus of imitations of the Master. As with didactic novels, the reader yawns and forgets. 

Saturday 27 April 2024

Review Peter Ackroyd The English Soul

  



Reading this book was like working through a cut and paste job. Peter Ackroyd acknowledges the help of two research assistants (Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien) and I guess they provided the cuts pasted into the potted Wikipedia-style biographies of divines and theologians which comprise the bulk of the book. Those biographies record births, marriages and death-bed scenes – in that order - though in contrast to Wikipedia nothing is footnoted. As far as I can tell, not a single new fact is reported; everything derives from secondary sources of which some are listed as Further Reading. It’s rather dull and there’s no humour at all – perhaps to reflect the fact that Jesus never laughed (the internet has long since gone viral on the subject). Occasionally, the book is coy: was John Wesley a philanderer or not? The book suggests it but doesn’t provide a clear answer. 

I found myself contrasting Ackroyd’s book with two recent works which are thoroughly researched and lively and which light up English religious cultures: Anna Keay’s study of Cromwellian England, The Restless Republic (2022) and Daisy Hays’ Dinner with Jospeh Johnson which treats of late eighteenth century radical and sceptical cultures in which William Blake figures (he gets a chapter in Ackroyd’s book).

Some discursive and slightly better essays appear later in the book but the last chapter reverts to mini-biography, presenting CVs for three twentieth century academic theologians with no attempt to discriminate. John Hick’s important Evil and the God of Love is not elevated above lesser works and there is no recognition of its core concern with solving the intractable theodicy problem: Since there is unmerited suffering in the world then either God is not all good or not all powerful.  Solve that one if you can. I am surprised that no editor was to hand to veto the inclusion of this worse-than-weak last chapter.

From time to time the biographies are interrupted or concluded by strange one-liners about “the English soul”. I quote a selection:

On Julian of Norwich: “The English soul was mediated through homely images.” (page 31)

On Thomas More: “The fight for the English soul had become earnest.” (70)

And again, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (73)

On Henry Barrow: “But his witness survived, and became a significant aspect of the English soul.” (107)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

As a response to Samuel Butler: “it is certainly true that the established religion rested on what was comfortable and what was familiar. That has always been the default position of the English soul.” (261)

And so it continues. Wrap up all your expositions with the same phrase and it reveals itself as either trite or vacuous. Ackroyd nowhere tries to place the notion of soul in relation to, say, heart or spirit. There are those who are kind-hearted and those who are mean-spirited; we use such terms to describe characters and make moral assessments.  Is a soul in contrast something which can only be evaluated from a theological standpoint as saved or damned? But then it would be rather odd to have a theology which had a category of English soul as if there might be French ones or Russian ones or Japanese ones requiring  separate theologies. And would those theologies acknowledge that there is more than one path to salvation? It hasn't really been part of the spirit of theologies to allow that.

Regardless of who is responsible for what, this miscellany is in no sense an enlightening history of Christianity in England or a successful evocation of the varied ways it has infused the experience of some generic English soul. To have achieved anything approaching such lofty ambitions would have required some informing sense of history and structure. Should one be thinking of a Great Tradition (Leavis-style) of lives and works or of a Simultaneous Order (T S Eliot-style) of cultural monuments?

Or should one be looking for the reflection of social changes in the way Christianity has been expressed and lived (in the style of R H Tawney, Christopher Hill and the Hammonds)? The English soul would then take different forms in different contexts:  changing configurations and strategies of state power; the distribution of literacy and access to knowledge; and, most obviously, the changing ways in which the worlds of the rich and the poor have been conjoined (“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate” – second verse, All Things Bright and Beautiful).

*

Peter Ackroyd was a scholarship boy who studied at Clare College, Cambridge re-endowed (as Clare Hall) in the fourteenth century by Lady Elizabeth de Clare. Part of her endowment comprised land and the church benefice in the nearby village of Litlington. Fellows of Clare regularly took the church living and then employed a curate to do the actual work, making the usual profit on the deal. But the Rev Dr William Webb, Master of Clare from 1815 to 1856 and vicar of Litlington from 1816 to 1856 actually lived much of the time in its rectory and indeed died there. This apparent devotion to clerical duty allowed him to pursue a lifelong passion for agricultural improvement; he brought Enclosure to Litlington in 1830. The consequences followed as they did everywhere. My Pateman ancestors, for centuries Litlington agricultural labourers, were scattered – some as far away as Australia by transportation or assisted passage. Some remained but suffered again from the mid-Victorian agricultural depression. Despite that depression, promptly after his death Dr Webb’s executors auctioned his crops growing at Litlington  for £405. 

Webb's  successor the Reverend Joseph Power (vicar from 1856 to 1866) may or may not have known much about his parish. His interests lay elsewhere; he was University Librarian and also looked after the wine cellar at Clare ( the records are archived); as a mathematician he had successfully explained the mechanical cause of one of the first fatal train accidents in England. But in August 1864 he was able to sell the barley growing on his  four Litlington acres for £23. The year is significant for my history.

In December 1863 my great great grandfather James Pateman stole a bushel of beans from his master, a local landowner, because his pregnant wife Susan was ill and their family hungry; he paid the price with 14 days hard labour in January 1864. A daughter, a little Emily, was born at the beginning of February but died before the month was out after a private baptism at home – anyone could perform such an act but it was probably done by a local dissenter; the Patemans had married in an independent Meeting House in nearby Royston, a centre of lively dissent from the time of the Civil War. In the 1870s after the early death of Susan who had no more children, her teenage son John - my great grandfather – became another of those who left the stricken village; he made his way to Brick Lane in London’s East End and found work in the giant Truman Hanbury and Buxton brewery which offered effective competition to the other opium of the people. By this time it’s probable that the Patemans were no longer dissenters but simply godless, which is how I experienced my Pateman grandparents. But none of them transmitted orally or left anything in writing to reveal how they experienced their lives;  they can only appear to me as if bereav'd of light. As the Hammonds put it in The Village Labourer, “this lost world has no Member of Parliament, no press, it does not make literature or write history; no diary or memoirs have kept alive for us the thoughts and cares of the passing day” Their take on the English soul has to be guessed at.

*

 

After a  prefatory warning  that you will find nothing here about Judaism or Islam or … but don’t be offended etc…. Ackroyd’s book starts with Bede when I would have expected Augustine, sent to re-christianise an island abandoned by the Romans and Rome. Arriving at the head of a large expedition funded by Pope Gregory and heading straight to the Canterbury capital of the local secular power, Augustine’s first task was to get Aethelberht on side and that he achieved. He got the protection and resources in cash and kind without which no religious mission can put down roots, outspend and defeat competitors   Aethelberht had his reward in this world: renewed church power and old state power were going to march arm in arm and have done so ever since. But I guess Augustine doesn’t make the cut because he wasn’t English and, to boot, the agent of a foreign power. (And, yes I agree, that’s an old English trope).

As for lived experience which touches the soul there is in Ackroyd’s book precious little about country churchyards, church bells tolling for thee or me, organs belting out the tunes which all the faithful come to sing. There is surprisingly little about parsons, benefices, tithes, the Victorian clerical novel, Sunday and National schools, Nativity plays (were you Mary or a donkey?), the cost of keeping up bishops’ palaces, cloister intrigues, schoolboys beaten, choristers interfered with. Nor is it pressed upon us that the lives of our ancestors since Augustine arrived have, for the very most part, been nasty, brutish and very short, Christ or no risen Christ. We too easily forget both infant mortality and how that experience affected husband, wife and siblings. It is not surprising that we encounter so much evidence of melancholia in those who did record their lives. The money spent on understanding the perils of childbirth and on laying-in wards was a minute fraction of that spent on steeples and spires. 

Ackroyd sketches the outer lives and inner struggles of his cast of mostly male characters. Some of the choices are obvious ones, some less so. A chapter on three Atheists (Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Richard Dawkins) included, as it were, to represent the Other Side, simply ignores such details as the distinctness of not believing in the existence of a God or any gods and not believing in any kind of personal immortality (which I suppose knocks out one version of the Soul, English or not). It does not treat secularism as a distinct belief cluster which could be adhered to by theists and quite often is outside of a Church of England which still clings fiercely to the secular privileges without which it would now die.  Ackroyd is silent on agnosticism as distinct from indifference. He does not allow for those who rather awkwardly feel that some form of unbelief is a moral obligation imposed by the record of terrible crimes committed – and across millenia - in the names of organised monotheisms. It’s for much the same reason that many have felt obliged to renounce the more recent ideals of Communism.

*

I do share the hope that everyone who lives long enough will come to feel that there is some Quest or other that they must undertake before it is too late. Some discover very young, some never. The English soul? This is Rudyard Kipling in Kim:

“…we must find that River; it is so verree valuable to us”

“But this is gross blasphemy!” cried the Church of England.

  Reposted 27 April 2024 because of glitch in Google indexing of the original post 

Monday 1 April 2024

Review David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu Who Owns This Sentence?

 





This is an important book not published by a major non-fiction house. It provides for three countries (France, Britain, USA) a detailed history of the complicated, uneven and often confused development of what we now call intellectual property law. The detail is fascinating and fully documented. But the book then turns to the hot button topic of the threat to intellectual and artistic activity  now posed by large corporate enterprises, heavy with lawyers, which are actively removing creative work (especially music and images) from what we call the public domain and in effect seeking to create corporate copyright in perpetuity.

In my country, there are houses which have been passed down through generations of the same family for several hundred years There are no laws in England or, really, in any country which set a fixed term to the period during which physical property can be passed down   Houses, land, jewellery, paintings, books – those can all be inherited though in many times and places tax has been due on inheritance.

In contrast, copyrights and other creator rights in intellectual property have always been restricted to fixed terms and subject to some other restrictions. The length has generally increased over time and now normally stands at seventy years after the death of the creator. Limited rights to “fair dealing” use in reviews and academic work are recognised, as is the right to parody. But “adaptations” are a very tricky area unless you are adapting Shakespeare over whose work no Heirs and Assigns now hover. But over the works of Samuel Beckett and T S Eliot they hover with a vengeance. Everyone enjoys hating these “Literary Estates” and those who manage them courtesy of the long property after-life of dead authors. That afterlife creates other frustrations too: Bellos and Montagu devote a chapter to “Orphan Works”, those pieces of property which are still in copyright but over which no known person or organisation claims the rights, either because they don’t know they own them or can’t be bothered to let it be known that they are the lawful proprietors. There must be many grand-children of dead minor or prolific writers and painters who simply don’t know what they own.

But the bigger problem is the corporations who think they do know. I will give an extended example of the kind of hazards we now face.

In 1808 Charlotte Reynolds (1761-1848), a minor figure in the circle of John Keats, wrote a poem about a goose and posted it to John Dovaston (1782-1854). It was never published though Dovaston published a poem, also about a goose, with which it is twinned. The dates of death of the two people involved clearly indicate that both poems are out of copyright. So when I found Charlotte's poem in 2023 in a batch of old letters sold in a provincial auction, I was free to publish both an image of the letter and a transcription of the poem and did so on this Blog on 20 January 2024. I also own the physical letter but plan to sell it; in her collection of Charlotte’s letters to Dovaston Letters from Lambeth (1981), Joanna Richardson indicates that the batch of letters she acquired  became available because of a house clearance, the commonest way in which old stuff comes onto the market. My letter was not in her batch – it predates those she obtained – but ended up in auction in 2023 no doubt in the latest of  a chain of previous auctions. It was sold for what was on the outside not the inside, at which probably no one had looked for a very long time. Physical stuff circulates through auctions, charity shops, garage sales, and so on and sometimes interesting things turn up. (Think Antiques Roadshow).

I own the letter but I don’t own any copyright on the text of the poem which I have placed in the public (internet) domain where anyone can read it and a surprisingly large number of people appear to have done so already.

What’s not to like? I scanned the letter and published an image along with a transcription of the text of the poem. In some jurisdictions I might be able to claim copyright on the image as recompense for the trouble I took in making it. But I did not place beside it a little label reading © PatemanImages and have no intention of doing so. I do have automatic copyright in the text I wrote to accompany the image, and (possibly?) in the transcription which took a lot of time. But I have no interest in either copyright. I am not preparing a daily-updated  list of everything I have ever written and published  to pass to my Heirs and Assigns.

But it is quite possible that some bot or corporate employee will come along, scrape the image off the internet, and offer it for “licensing” to anyone who wants to use it -  say, a literary periodical publishing a piece about Charlotte Reynolds. The fees will be variable but do not include future ownership of the image which is only available for rent – the key word which identifies the claim to ownership as analogous to the claim to a house or piece of land.

If you go to literary and art world periodicals you will find many illustrations which are accompanied by a © sign and the name of some well-known image shop. Many and maybe most of those images will feature works long out of copyright. One should ask, Where did the image-renter get the image? Did they despatch a photographer, or buy the original work,  or did they simply copy an existing public domain image? Did they scrape it off the internet? And having done so, can they then come back to you ( or me) and tell you (me) to take down the image to which they now own the copyright? That thought places me in a bind: should I now place a copyright notice beside my image to prevent someone else doing so?

If  you can create a new  copyright in any of  the above ways it’s clear that you can create indefinite copyright. After the requisite number of years you simply copy again the original image and claim a new copyright on the new copy. Bellos and Montagu do discuss similar cases where what is usually reckoned to be at stake is whether anyone has engaged in any fresh “creative” or “intellectual” work to produce something worthy of a new lease of copyright

You have been warned; Bellos and Montagu encapsulate the warning by using as a preface to their work an old English rhyme:

The law doth punish man or woman

That steals the goose from off the common

But lets the greqter felon loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday 30 March 2024

My Life in Letters Then and Emails Now


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From the published volume of letters A Private Spy (2022) it’s clear that John le Carré was good at keeping up with his correspondence. In his case, it’s not obvious that he was writing for posterity; he often kept no copies. ( See the Review on this site 1 November 2022)/  He may have been following a habit established in many childhoods of the past where in addition to dutiful Thank You letters there might be absent parents to whom regular and often anxious letters would be addressed.

Le Carré, who was never less than very busy, often replied to complete strangers and not just by sending best wishes and the autograph which might be hoped for. But this was not eccentricity; there was a time when anyone could, for the price of a postage stamp, write to anyone - even a famous writer - and reasonably hope for some kind of reply. The Collected Letters of some authors are numbered in thousands - ten thousand and counting in the case of Henry James.

*

In 1963 John Dancy, the Master of Marlborough College, published The Public Schools and the Future. I read it and wrote to tell him that as far as this sixteen-year-old grammar school boy was concerned, they had no future. I got a nice reply inviting me and three or four school friends to stay at Marlborough for a week and, in exchange, accept a return visit to our school from some of his boys, accommodation to be provided in our homes. Talk to my own Headmaster and deal done. As a result, one unfortunate Marlborough boy had to pass a week without a bath, hot water, and with use only of an outside toilet.

This positive reinforcement to a letter-writing habit was not the first I had received. As a youthful stamp collector I wrote to The Postmaster, The Maldive Islands (perfectly adequate address) asking for information about that country but, of course, hoping for a reply franked with collectible local stamps. The Maldives were not then a tourist destination and mail was scarce. I got the stamps on the outside and inside the large envelope a locally-printed booklet giving me more information than the Britannica could supply. I still remember one detail: the Maldivian government had recently welcomed its newest and most youthful cabinet minister; he was sixteen.

Just turned seventeen, and thanks to a Your Holiday This Summer address provided in The Daily Mail, I travelled (train, boat, train) to the Swedish province of Dalarna for a post-A level summer job in the Hotel Siljansborg – now demolished – where Ingmar Bergman had sometimes retreated to write screenplays. I didn’t know that and didn’t make a connection to the wild strawberries I ate on walks by Lake Siljan. I was just curious that they were called smultron but regular strawberries jordgubbar.

With a track record of epistolary success I found it easy enough to take on the task, allotted to university club secretaries, of writing to prospective visiting speakers and passing on resolutions carried to those they were carried against. And so it has continued for most of my life.

In the examples given, I profiled myself in some minimal way: grammar school boy, stamp collector, club secretary.  The pitch I made to Miss Arpi for a job in her hotel did also include a brief To Whom It May Concern reference from my school, which I reckoned necessary. But, realistically, none of the letters’ recipients could have sought further credentials and would not have attempted it. Where might they look? Who’s Who? The telephone directory?  Readers had to take on trust that you were who you said you were and that you were writing for a reason. That had to be enough and, if satisfied, you replied. Fröken Arpi employed me because I wrote to her and asked for work. She didn’t even see a photograph.

*

A world like that no longer exists.

Some of the 1960s club secretary correspondence is now housed among the John Johnson collections of the Bodleian Library. But when in the 1970s I deposited the first batch of this and other hard copy material, unsorted in boxes and carrier bags, it never occurred to me that one day in 2023 I would sit at a computer screen and scroll through forty-seven open access pages which inventory the contents of twenty-one organised boxes.  I’m not even sure it’s an outcome I would have wanted; it seems rather indiscreet. I had imagined an archive gathering the dust of discretion and awaiting its chance discoverer.

To state the obvious, teenagers no longer pen letters; they write emails and so does almost everyone. And email recipients can easily check credentials before replying and many do:  Who are you (or, perhaps, Who do you think you are?). Are you on Facebook, X, LinkedIn, academia.edu, ResearchGate, Tinder? Quite aside from the contents of an online Profile, those locations have their own status rankings as do obsessively informative university directories.

What do you look like? Do you have a dog? Are you transphobic? Do you have a doctorate? Are you on editorial boards? The answers to a myriad of possible questions are there on the internet and create the human algorithm which determines whether a reply is sent. The original email could be a literary masterpiece (grant that hypothesis …) but that is nothing compared to a shiny CV polished only yesterday.

In the search for credentials, email recipients may forget one thing. They often leave a trace and the email sender will be aware that you have read the CV and, indeed, very shortly after receiving the email to which you do (or don’t) reply. You can’t have been that busy. Seems like you were sitting at your desk anxiously waiting for the World to contact you, then disappointed to find that it is only a namesake of that famous person who has written.

Such eager profiling could be a sensible attempt to avoid wasting time on a time-waster. But in both literary and academic contexts it may just be an index of status anxiety. Those are contexts where too many people are chasing not enough (insecure, poorly paid) jobs. In that kind of world, you reply to an email from someone of higher status or who might help your career, but don’t reply to someone who clearly can’t, for whatever reason, and who can’t be quantified under “public engagement”. No one puts on their CV, “replied to eighty-seven unsolicited emails from the great unwashed”.

John le Carré found enough time to engage with the public as individuals, sometimes over a couple of handwritten pages. He also went on the open-to-all, non-virtual stage. I listened to him shortly before his death in a packed Royal Festival Hall where he spoke for an hour, standing erect; what he said had substance and style. And, in the end, what matters is substance and style, not the template-driven Profile, which like most people I now feel obliged to offer..

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Tuesday 19 March 2024

Review Sathnam Sanghera Empireworld

 



This book is based on extensive research converted into very readable prose. It’s packed with detail some or much of which will be unfamiliar to most readers and certainly kept me reading, wanting more.

The author is at pains to distance himself from “Balance Sheet” approaches to study of the British Empire – was it “on balance” a good thing or a bad thing? But at the same time he cannot avoid the problem which faces all history writing, How do you punctuate the past? That often converts into what may look like a simpler question, Who started it? But that is rarely (if ever) capable of a straightforward answer for reasons which are not that difficult to sketch.

Such evidence as we have and from all periods f history at least strongly suggests a number of things:

-          If they have neighbours, then human beings whether living in extended family groupings, clans, tribes or nation states seem to have a great deal of trouble in getting on with those neighbours on a long-term basis. History is less about War and Peace and more about War and Truce.

-          Migration, often large-scale, is a constant in the career of Homo Sapiens. It can be triggered by climate change, by exhaustion of local resources, by ethnic cleansing, by deportations, by a spirit of adventure, by a desire to dominate and enrich, by converting human beings into objects to be traded - and the traders could be connected across continents, African traders passing their goods to British traders and so on.  And so on and so on..... Whatever the cause or the reason, at any one time in history at least some significant number of humans will be on the move. And they will more often than not be moving to places already inhabited by people who will not necessarily welcome their new neighbours and (most?) often don’t.

-         The human capacity for appalling behaviour is considerable and in its worst forms has always been dominated by the violent acts of young males; those acts often sadistic and sexual. The historical record is imperfect but even pre-historic societies have left evidence of cruelty and torture, though without a written record or oral testimony, we obviously cannot have anything like the knowledge we have about later societies. We are in debt to writers like Bartolome de las Casas for our knowledge of at least some of the horrors of early European colonisation. But again another problem of punctation arises – our histories rarely ask about the mental health of those who lived in the distant past. At the same time, we know that living conditions were often precarious, unpleasant, unpredictable, and cruel. And in many places they still are. I would be quite unsurprised to be told that the majority of human beings who have ever lived have had significant mental health problems. To understand all is not to forgive all but it would be partial to leave out of the historical record some attempt to understand the incidence of mental disorders in past societies. The behviour of slave owners or colonial soldiers cannot be separated from how people behaved “at home”, and likewise how the lives of slaves compared to the miserable lives of the poor “back home”. Back home heretics were burnt, disobedient sailors whipped, teenagers hung for petty theft, children raped, and so on and so on, endlessly. It’s true that “at home” there emerged over time some restraints on behaviour both informal and formal. But then restraints emerged in the colonies too, as Sathnam Sanghera documents.

Hegel wrote about the “slaughter bench of history” and from the greatest distance and trying to survey the biggest picture, that is what human history has been. Punctuation is most often the attempt to shift blame on to someone else and that is what makes so much history writing, certainly in the past and even now, “ideological”.