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Wednesday 14 December 2016

Review: Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

The Victorians have left us so many narratives of themselves that we are spoilt for choice if we want to re-invent them for ourselves and in our own image. Sarah Perry’s historical novel – set in 1893 -  is very well crafted and constructed, the scenes tight, the prose never slack, but her characters do tend to those which will be handled without too much difficulty in the polite Creative Writing class discussion or the Sunday School (or Guardian) book club. Oh, true, there is adultery but not too much and even-handed lesbianism and male homosexuality but of a delicate kind to which even a vicar would have to give his blessing. It’s one of the helpful things about the Victorians; they did generally keep their clothes on. There is a minor sexual assault (p 178), but even then everyone appears to remain fully clothed. It sits rather awkwardly but  I assume it is there to provide one more motive for Naomi Banks to run away from home, but those motives are so dispersed through the book that I suspect readers may have forgotten them by the time Naomi reappears two hundred pages later.

Projection of our own wishes into the past is one of the risks in writing – and reading - historical fictions. Another and simpler risk is that of anachronism, the kind which a friend or an editor will spot. Sarah Perry knows her material well and has been left to slip only occasionally: a first-class stamp ( p 415), unknown to the Victorians proud of their classless system - for most of the period, one penny for a letter and a half-penny for a postcard; an urban housing situation which is unsustainable (p 282), a term which belongs in the  literary gutter anyway; and poor William Ewart Gladstone gadding about with hookers (p 48) which sounds to me so wildly out of place that surely I am wrong and it is a Victorianism revived by Sarah Perry. For most of us, Gladstone walked the streets in search of fallen women or prostitutes.

I read the first hundred and fifty or so pages – probably more - with ease and pleasure, but then there is a hundred pages where the chapters become over-burdened with sub-plots, specifically those set in London. These sub-plots take us away from the powerful device of the Essex Serpent, which is one of Perry’s big creative devices. Then it picks up again when the serpent returns. Her other big creative devices are her child characters, who despite what I presume are nods in the directions of autism and gender fluidity, are all splendidly imagined and largely unthinkable as modern children. Her mad woman in the attic, the tubercular Stella, is also very interestingly imagined. 

There is a short scene which moved me at page 387, a scene beautifully concluded, at the bottom of the page, by one of Perry’s infrequent and restrained flashes of humour.

I bought this book partly because I’d read an interview with the author in which she discussed her writing habits and partly because Waterstones had a very attractively bound and jacketed version on sale. The design and presentation of so many books in the shops is dire; this one has been thought about.

Monday 12 December 2016

Review: Dear Willy ... Edited by Claire Ohlsson Geheb

Click on Image to Magnify

This is an unusually interesting compilation of family letters and personal journals, kept in a suitcase by Willy Geheb (1900 - 1988), a blacksmith's and small farmer's son from rural Saxony in the eastern part of Germany. After the First World War, he leaves his home village to make his fortune in Brazil, Mexico and finally Chicago where he becomes an American citizen in 1934. He maintains - and keeps - a correspondence with his parents and members of a large family much of which survived to be discovered after his death, though material from the period after 1947 is missing.

From the point of view of a social historian, there is much here of interest. There is the hard life of an immigrant, the ambivalence of his family about his departure, their own changing circumstances as Germany struggles in the 1920s, their prompt adoption of Hitler in 1933, and their total dependence on Chicago-based Willy and his wife Irma for material help after Germany's defeat and the incorporation of their region into the Soviet Zone of east Germany. The letters which detail the contents of the parcels they have received are testimony to the poverty of immediate post-war Germany. But the birth of children is a constant of the family history, and no one ever hints at the possibility of achieving a better life through limiting family size. For, traditionally, children were assets to farming and small artisanal families. But in this story,not all of them survive and many are plagued by ill health.

Willy's blacksmith father is a conscientious letter-writer and tries to hold together a narrative and a set of values for the whole family until his death in 1945. He is stern, moralising and does not have a moment's hesitation in adding Hitler and Nazism to the Lutheran Christianity which serves him up until 1933. One of his sons, Paul, who comes across as rather unpleasant in his earlier letters to his brother Willy becomes an active Nazi. Willy in his letters is always urging other members of his family to get out and make their fortune in the USA but none do. His own letters are lively and concerned and, in the end, after 1945, he becomes the typical migrant burdened by the material needs of those back home, though he never complains and goes well beyond the call of family duty..

The family documents itself in photographs as well as letters, and the documentation must be unusually extensive for a family where no one has much formal education, even though by the standards of their village, they are well-established and relatively prosperous.

There is a Wikipedia page for Willy Geheb's home village of Schmirma and this book should certainly be added to the references on that page. There was no point at which the translation struck me as likely to be forced or wrong, and the book reads easily with fairly unobtrusive editorial comments to help sustain transitions in the story.

Most books I review here are ones I have bought; this one was sent to me for review.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Reading To Some Purpose - Advice to a Young Academic

I sometimes imagine some post-mortem pie chart which shows how I used the hours of my life. 

Sleeping will provide the biggest slice, of course. Next might come eating but I am pretty sure that in my case it will be substantially beaten by reading. I began reading a lot when I was about eleven and, since mine was a home without books, they came at first from public libraries. In the sixth form, I began buying my own books. Newly arrived at university, my rather scary Economics tutor, the late John Corina, snapped at me, “Book a day, Pateman! Book a day!” thus setting a reading target which I often fulfilled then and, fifty years later, sometime still do. And there aren’t many books you can read in under six or seven hours, not if you read them as I always do, cover to cover. I very rarely skim a book. So Book a Day is almost a day’s work a day.

Asked that standard question about how – given a second chance - you would live your life differently, I would have to reply that I would think more about why I was using my time reading the book in my hand. Looking back, I have read far too many books for no obvious purpose, not even just for pleasure. Indeed, it would have better to have read more books for pleasure and fewer for the rather obscure purposes of self-improvement, or because the author was famous, or because it was sent to me for review, and so on through a long list.

I would certainly have written more academic papers – books, even - if instead of listening to that “Book a day!” injunction, I had told myself to read all and only that necessary to write the next paper which might then become a chapter of the next book. If any young academic ever asked my advice (they don’t), I would have to say, Always read with some purpose and the more narrowly-defined, the better.

I can see that there is a case against that view (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?). If you stumble around as a typical “general reader” (which is how I classify myself), you will chance upon things and, if you persist long enough – like decades - some things will link up and allow you some new insight denied to the researcher who sticks studiously to the literature “in their field”. That is surely true. 

Recently, I have been turning some old journal articles in Pragmatics into a book – optical scanning plus copy and paste makes it a cakewalk. I took the decision to make a consolidated Bibliography for everything rather than leave references at the end of each chapter. And when I checked through the fourteen pages which resulted, I was very impressed. Whatever the quality of the chapters - probably mixed - the Bibliography is in a league of its own. And (with two or three exceptions) I have read everything on it. But no one is going to buy my book to read my Bibliography, even though I can’t help feeling it deserves a prize for effort.

What I now see in that Bibliography is the disproportion between the effort expended and the result. Many of those things read contributed no more than a sentence in a footnote and, frankly, a sentence in a footnote is not worth several hours’ work, not unless the result is a very highly polished pearl of a sentence. But if it’s that, it shouldn’t be in a footnote in the first place and it shouldn’t be a sentence. Academics nowadays are measured for their output of orange juice, and you will be out of a job if you only produce concentrated orange juice.

I find it hard to break with old habits. Not so long ago, I ordered a dozen books off Amazon, some deliciously obscure. One of them, I knew in advance, might contribute one sentence to something I was working on. I was going to read four hundred pages on Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought to squeeze out that one sentence. I just had to make a pearl of it. But, for once, reason won out and after making myself skim the book I decided not to try for that one sentence.

In truth, I know there are short-cuts. Take my advice. Use them.

The Times Higher invites emailed submissions of short Opinion pieces. I sent this in a few months ago, but got no reply, so here it is on my Blog

Thursday 17 November 2016

Essay: On Finishing a Book

Someone said to me recently that you don't finish a book; you abandon it. I had already got to the point where I was tinkering and was only spinning things out just in case some voice in my head told me to Start Again!

Donald Trump solved my problem. The book is not Current Affairs, but there is a theme about America which runs through it. And I thought: If I go on tinkering, Trump will start getting in and in ways which have not been thought through. Any re-writes will surely stick out as such. True, he's there already in the background of a sentence about building walls but that's it - and I decided to keep it that way. I don't want him in a last-minute foreground.

So I signed off.   A couple of days later, Leonard Cohen died and confirmed my decision. He's in the book at least three times and I had written some nice things about him. His death gave me a further reason not to start fiddling around again with a near-final text. I didn't want to ramp up what I had already written and which had been quite carefully considered. I wrote a tribute while he was still alive and I will stay with what I wrote.

As well as working with an editor on every chapter, I found (using gumtree where lots of clever people looking for work can be found) a complete stranger to read through a late draft and it proved very helpful. I would have repeated the exercise, but a couple of emails I sent out in hope went unanswered; a third one was answered by someone Famous excusing himself as too busy.

Today I printed off a copy and read right through, just doing copy-edits and small style glitches. It's only 57 000 words. If my nerve holds, I'll send it to the typesetter on Monday. I'll keep you updated ...

Update 20 November It's gone to the typesetter a day early under the title Silence Is So Accurate and I hope it will appear in 2017. I have worked up a cover I like but this can't be finalised until the page-length of the book is confirmed - that determines the spine width.

What I don't have for the cover is something which nowadays is more or less obligatory: I don't have any Puffs from friends, family and famous declaring my book the best thing since the last best thing. Should you be Famous and reading this, a Puff would always be appreciated. Of course, you don't have to read the book ...

Well, now the spine length is settled, here is the front cover. Publication due 15 February 2017, ISBN 9780993587924. Pages 224. Price £20. Available for pre-order at Waterstones and Blackwell and Book Depository.

Click on Image to Magnify

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Review: Paul Beatty, The Sellout

I bought this book from the Waterstone's table of novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize, read it during a week working in Germany, and by the time I got home it had won the Prize.

Novels deal with things at least some of which we will not be familiar with and sometimes will be completely ignorant of. But we manage, sometimes only partially. I don't think I understood everything in Paul Beatty's book and though I often smiled or occasionally laughed I am certain I did not get all the gags. So I am not a good judge of the book. That said, I have doubts about it which relate to other aspects than the gags I didn't get.

I felt the author was trying too hard, like a stand-up comedian on a bad night. I felt the book lacked structure, trying to do too many things and not always sure what those things were even though all the reviewers who are all over my copy are completely sure.* I felt that as it progresses it actually runs out of steam - the Supreme Court is not a climax but just a continuation. At just one point (page 266) did the book really move me in a short passage I felt could have owed something to Brecht.

I concede that this is a Minority Report. Time will tell. Go through the back list of Booker Prize winners and there are plenty there you will struggle to recognise - Was that the book about ...?  - and, if you try to read those forgotten books, you will struggle.

* It amused me that The Guardian was there on the  cover. If Paul Beatty had submitted an extract from this book for publication to that Sunday School newspaper, I am 100% sure it would have either not replied or would have set one of its endless supply of dire columnists onto him.

Monday 17 October 2016

Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

Waterstones had a table with Booker Prize Shortlist books and I bought this one for no other reason than that it has achieved publicity because it was brought out by a small publisher based in Scotland rather than thwacked on the table under some imprint of an international conglomerate media company - the sort of company which reckons it ought to be able to stitch up the Booker any time (look at some of the past winners!) 

I read the 280 pages in a day, mostly without difficulty once I had got past the opening difficulty. Within a minute of beginning to read, I was thinking Pierre Riviere - the real-life 19th century French rural murderer who wrote a Memoir of his own deeds (I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother ...  and wishing to make known the motives etc). It's true that Burnet briefly acknowledges the book at the end of a list (p 281), but the debt to Michel Foucault's work goes quite deep since the structure of this book in effect mirrors Foucault's presentation of the dossier on the Riviere case. I think that may cause a problem for the Booker jury. Macrae has had a lot of his work done for him.

But I got past this. The best part of the book is undoubtedly The Account of Roderick Macrae which takes up 137 pages of the 280 - so, a half. Here the demand on the author is that he proceed confidently in his narrator's voice and avoid the main pitfalls of such writing, which are anachronism and pastiche. Burnet opts for a fairly neutral prose which does not constantly try to evoke 19th century rural Scotland - he makes do with a small specialised vocabulary to give period flavour and provides a Glossary to it - and he avoids obvious anachronism. Once he uses "hobby" where I would have thought "pastime" and no doubt there are others like that but nothing dreadful.

The main problem (and this one also for the Booker jury) is that he does not quite bring off the uncertainty he creates around Macrae's motivation, nor does that uncertainty map straightforwardly onto the official theme of criminal insanity. In brief, Macrae committed three murders, one of them also involving a violent sexual assault - the medical evidence at pages 156 - 57 - on a girl (or the body of a dead girl) who has spurned him. That is nowhere mentioned in his own Account, which is to that extent either dishonest or obscured by an insane degree of denial. Nor does this possible motivation drive the narrative of the Trial until one witness alights on the possibility. There is a more complex narrative implied than the surface one but though it is fairly constantly hinted at it doesn't really get structured enough to give us a chance to engage with it.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Review: John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel

I started into this three hundred page book of thirty eight mainly short chapters just as I was finalising a book of twenty six short chapters which will take up a couple of hundred pages, next year with any luck. I am glad I did not read it earlier. The author knows how to tell a good story and tell it splendidly. Some of the stories are tragic, some are hilarious. Some of the stories exude a sense of “I’m old. Why not? Who cares? They're dead. So here goes …”  If I had read them sooner, I would have succumbed to last-minute influence.

My twenty six chapters don’t include a narrative of the only occasion (to my knowledge) when anyone tried to recruit me to British Intelligence. In 1972 I had found myself a job teaching Liberal Studies to day release apprentices – bricklayers, plumbers, panel beaters – in Devon. I was bent on subversion but in reality was simply making a mess of it and I knew I had to try to give some better direction to my life. I was twenty five now. So as a long shot, I booked in to talk to the Careers Adviser at the University of Exeter. I don’t know how I blagged that, since I had not studied there. But anyway, he interviewed me at some length, appeared to think for a bit, and then asked me if I had time to take an IQ test – he may have called it something else but to me he was just asking me to re-sit the 11+. I had no qualms about doing that and happily filled in the test papers behind a closed door, emerging to hand them over to my interviewer. He scored them at his desk and then drew out from a drawer a little brochure for GCHQ. Did I know what it was? Would I perhaps like to read it and think about it?

I was embarrassed; I felt sorry for him. Though I most definitely over-rated the non-existent threat I posed to National Security, I was probably not far off in thinking that it was as if he was proposing a police career to an amateur criminal, not the career kind of criminal for whom it would be appropriate. I was painfully reminded of the girlfriend who desperately wanted to be a real spy and who regarded me as one of the main liabilities to her chances of success; so she lied me out of existence, replacing me with the Double (who she was also sleeping with). And that was four years ago, since when some of my unsuitable friends had become even more unsuitable. I would have been curious to find out more about GCHQ but felt they would surely turn me away on first profiling and this decent man who had taken time out to interview me would be made to look a bit of a fool. So I politely declined.

Now if you liked that little bit of story you will surely like John le Carré’s book a whole lot more because it is full of much stranger encounters with much larger-than-life characters, most of them famous in their own right. He meets them all, if we are to believe him and I’m not sure I do, in the course of doing “research” for his next novel. But he does take a lot of personal risks, does do an awful lot of research, and why would you be doing that unless you were a spy? And don’t tell me it’s all about spying for your novels.

What I like a lot about le Carré is his politics, which are not easy to pigeon-hole. He is part humanist, part socialist and part what is (or was) occasionally called Tory Anarchist, an expression you will understand if you align it with Manic Depressive or as we are now supposed to call it, Bi-polar.

This is a splendid book, very easy to read, and full of surprises and strong feelings. (And I will let you into a secret: I don’t usually write sentences like that on this Blog).

In chapter 35, Carre tells a story dated to 1967 in which he helps to secure "leave to remain" in the UK for a famous Czech actor who has left Czechoslovakia legally but who wishes not to return and equally not to defect or claim political asylum, which would result in retaliation against the friends and family he has left behind. Carre taps a few friends for help and has soon got a polite letter into the hands of the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins,  and the rest is a history which Carre is able to narrate.

In the summer of 1967, aged nineteen, I was Chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club once a purely party outfit but now less so - my own Labour Party membership, acquired at the age of 16 had lapsed in 1966. In my capacity as Chairman (I think) I was asked to a house in north Oxford and introduced to a Czech student, a boy I guess around my own age, living in a cupboard-sized room with a girl who may or may not have been Czech but who does not figure in the rest of the story. I forget who asked me to visit or what was said, but  I was asked to help the boy stay in the UK and if I had to say now why he wanted to stay then I am prompted to say that he had done something political back home which put him at risk if he returned. But really I have forgotten, and maybe he just wanted to stay with the girl. Whether he had come out on a visa or clandestinely, I do not know. My effort to help consisted in setting up a Sunday morning meeting at the home of a Labour MP who lived locally, Robert Maxwell then resident in Headington Hall on the estate which housed his Pergamon Press publishing company. How I achieved this, I don't now know - this is of course before mobile phones and emails.Nor was I one of Maxwell's constituents - the voting age was still 21 and Maxwell was in any case MP for Buckingham.

We went along and I recall a grand reception hall with a harp on display. Then we were taken into a dining room with a vast and beautifully polished table. The boy sat on one side, me on the other, and Robert Maxwell at the top of the table. The boy's English was not very good and Maxwell soon turned to Czech and appeared to question him quite forcefully and at some length. At the end, Maxwell turned to me and explained that he had publishing contracts in Czechoslovakia and that he was afraid that the boy might be a provocateur, hence the questioning. Whether any promises were made, I don't recall and as to what happened next, I don't recall that either. That's the problem with trying to remember things fifty years later, at least for me it is.

Thursday 6 October 2016

Review: Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution, Petrograd 1917

Living capital cities are always full of foreigners and always have been. Occasionally, a sclerotic regime has tried to keep them out – of Lhasa, for example – but most regimes need them as diplomats, bankers, businessmen, engineers, skilled technicians, doctors, translators, chefs, nannies, tutors, entertainers …

St Petersburg and Petrograd (as it was from 1914) was full of foreigners – indeed, bringing in foreigners had been government policy from the time of Peter the Great. All that the outbreak of World War One did was to empty the city of Germans (except for the spies) and replenish their ranks with additional Allied personnel. So when Petrograd led Russia into Revolution, not just once but twice in 1917, there were plenty of foreigners around to observe what went on and Helen Rappaport bases herself on the records left by a relatively small cast of American, British and French foreigners in Petrograd. She has produced a highly readable book though rather unbalanced. Foreigners from neutral countries – and there were many in the First World War including Russia’s near- neighbours Denmark and Sweden – were well-represented in Russia working for Red Cross or similar relief organisations and they may have had a different perspective on events in Russia to those involved in the Allied cause. There were also at least some more working class foreigners than those to be found here. Rappaport offers a view from the middle and upper classes.

She has researched thoroughly and I think that her narrative of the February Revolution which brought down the unloved and unmourned Romanovs is very strong. For those at the time this was the Revolution and what came after in October was a coup.

But her lack of sympathy for the Bolsheviks does lead to some carelessness. She produces “property is theft” as a “favourite Marxist dictum” (page 308) when of course it is the catch-phrase of a nineteenth century French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Lenin in 1917 did not speak of property as theft but urged the expropriation of the expropriators using the more striking phrase “Loot the looters!” In an economy and administration which had literally ground to a halt, the call to loot the looters was about the only means available to the government to bring about any kind of redistribution of wealth, whether from landlord to peasant or private owner to state. Even then, it could not solve the problem of hunger which bulks large in Rappaport’s narrative. The Romanovs could not feed Petrograd, the Provisional Government could not, nor could the Bolsheviks. Many starved and between 1917 – 21 the population plunged as those who could, left.

Again, she makes another small slip, saying that the Bolsheviks finally adopted the Western calendar on 13 February 1918, instantly adding 13 days (page 326). In fact, in Bolshevik controlled areas, 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February which would otherwise have been 1 February. I have a postcard from a Danish traveller in Siberia writing home on the 14th to say cheerfully that for the first time it’s the same date in both Russia and Denmark.

I do think there is more material around than Rappaport has discovered and she recognises this in soliciting access to fresh sources (page 340). There is, for example, material written on the back of postcards  since Russia’s postal service did function right through 1917 almost without interruption – even in Petrograd and even if unreliable. Lots of mail did not arrive at its destination and  lots was delayed. Between the collapse of Imperial mail censorship and the imposition of Bolshevik censorship, there was a space in which people probably felt much freer to write about what they saw and what they were thinking, though the legacy of censorship probably still cast its shadow

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Review: Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

The Female Eunuch was published in 1970 when Germaine Greer was thirty or thirty one. I forget whether I read it at the time, though I was reading other Second Wave feminist work, and I decided to (re-?) read it now partly because she is someone who quite a lot of people now hate and want to No Platform.

The book starts a bit uncertainly as Greer tries to behave like a proper scientist, adducing and evaluating evidence. Some of this discussion seems a bit quaint because science has moved on – for example, DNA testing did not exist in 1970. But it also feels quaint when it engages the literature which the Discovery of Sex in the 1960s spawned, a literature in which it is very easy to get lost as it searches, sometimes blindly, for the location of the female orgasm. Greer has a Queen Victoria moment when she writes of female ejaculation that it is “utterly fanciful” (page  44). Then the book moves into sections where I felt that the text was probably being eked out with material from Greer’s Cambridge doctoral researches. Finally, Greer finds her own voice in the last hundred pages and lets rip.

A few things struck me. This is a book about relations between men and women. Lesbians get a few mentions and gay men barely any (and the ones I noticed were not sympathetic). It’s not Greer’s scene and she isn’t really very interested. You could say that the whole book is about Greer’s own dilemmas. She is a heterosexual woman who wants to relate to men (and probably in the plural rather than the singular) but where the ways available for doing so are profoundly unattractive, unlike individual men. She is beautiful, clever, loud and likes relationships and sex - none of which taken singly may sound particularly off-putting but which offered as a package seem to have nowhere to go. Beautiful on its own allows you to be some man’s trophy. Clever on its own allows you to be a blue stocking but after the experience of Cambridge, No Thank You. Loud is more difficult thanks to polite society and likewise sex, which doesn’t seem to go with being someone’s wife and having children. In the last hundred pages, Greer decides that marriage is the main enemy and comprehensively trashes it. On all fronts, she does not want to be a eunuch and, to a greater or lesser extent, that is the deal she feels she is being offered. Why would anyone want to be a eunuch?

You can see where this might later lead her and I was looking out for signs of attitudes which have made her the focus of so much anger and it was there in the odd cutting remark.

In 1968-70 I was a graduate student in London and hung out with second wave feminists who gravitated into things like the London Women’s Liberation Workshops. They appear at page 349:

When these worthy ladies appeared at the Miss World Contest with their banners saying “We are not sexual objects” (a proposition that no one seemed inclined to deny) they were horrified to find that girls from the Warwick University movement were chanting and dancing around the police…

The parenthesis did make me smile, for a moment, but immediately it's obvious that it manages to be both a masculine unchivalrous remark and an unsisterly aside, the offence compounded by the acid contrast of “worthy ladies” and “girls”. But behind the cutting remark there is a coherent and worthy intellectual position: Greer is quite clear that for her feminism is not an Anti-Sex League and that sexual desire when not corrupted by patriarchy and capitalist advertising is indeed prompted and sustained by individuals in all their individuality and not by persons as objects – something she acknowledges in a very nice, single sentence about a truck driver and his wife:

I remember a truck driver telling me once about his wife, how sexy and clever and loving she was, and how beautiful. He showed me a photograph of her and I blushed for guilt because I had expected something plastic and I saw a woman by trendy standards plain, fat and ill-clad. (page 162)

So you might say she lands herself in hot water unnecessarily, carried away by irritation and frustration. But if we made that a No Platform offence, we would not need any platforms at all.

Monday 19 September 2016

Review: Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

This is a lovely book written by a thirty year old woman who has returned to her native Orkney to recover having written off the best part of ten years in London – most of the time spent in becoming an alcoholic and staying that way. The book has a natural honesty, though I would avoid phrases like “searingly honest” since that conventional trope tends to make the honesty a smaller thing than it is.

A large part of the book’s interest lies in the way Amy Liptrot uses her habitat in Orkney – the sea, the rocks, the birds, the wind – as a thing to think with about her predicament. Occasionally, she seems to be trying too hard at the metaphor or at creating what I suppose T S Eliot might have called the “Objective Correlative” of her feelings. But most of the time it does not feel forced and most of the time it is disciplined – the book does not wander off at tangents but sticks to the twin themes of alcoholism and the exploration and inventorying of the natural world to which she has removed herself.

This discipline also helps the book to come across as an act of reparation. She is repairing herself in writing it, making good wasted time by doing something with her life, and also making some kind of gift to other people including those she has alienated along the alcoholic way. That surely is one reason way the reader ends up wanting to wish her well.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Review: Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think

In 1958, aged ten, my father took me on a day trip from Folkestone to Boulogne aboard the Royal Daffodil, one of the ancient ferries which British Railways used for the Channel crossings. You didn’t need a proper passport – a disposable day passport was available cheaply and easily. I found a terrific toy car – a Citroën DS – in a Boulogne shop and on the way back through British Customs kept my hand clamped over it in my raincoat pocket in the belief that it might be an illegal import. It probably was.

Now as someone whose way out of England is still through the Channel crossings, I read the News a bit anxiously as the border between England and France gets harder each day, wondering who will close it first. It was the English who inevitably opted out of Schengen – the word “British” is inaccurate in these matters – but I believe it will be the French who, one way or another, will shut the border completely. They would, wouldn’t they?

There will be lots of people buying Hazareesingh’s book. We would all like to know how the French think because we know that they do think and that this is one of the reasons why they are so difficult to live with unlike the English who don’t think, just get on with life as we have always lived it and intend to continue. We don’t, for example, have to worry about heads of our Ruritanian state – we have them already neatly lined up, hair parted, for the next one hundred years – and increasingly we don’t have to worry about elections: we presently have a government which simply installed itself, promptly telling Parliament that it is now a consultative body like the old Russian Duma.

Hazareesingh’s quite long book is very readable and often amusing. It has two weaknesses. It’s panorama of French thought is quite often not much more than a series of thumbnails. It reminded me in this of Bernard Wasserstein’s On The Eve which I reviewed here a while back. Thumbnails are all right if you are looking for a background briefing but I don’t belong to the class of people who need background briefings on how to deal with the French. The second weakness is its Oxford Common Room geniality. The author has been holed up in Balliol since 1990 and that does not bode well for anyone. At worst, he lets the French off scot-free which may be one reason they have awarded his book one of their big prizes, always a relief to have a foreigner who doesn't trash us.

Hazareesingh’s approach is broadly narrative chronological and it is perhaps this approach which allows the author to avoid anything which you might think of as a confrontation or contestation except in chapter 10 which is more decisive in this respect. What I would like to have seen is more use of the possibilities inherent in the contrast of history and structure – thank you, Lévi-Strauss and Sartre – trying to tease out how the structural awfulness of France today is the product of a history, including an intellectual history. How come the French end up with the paralysed figure of Hollande, who you could see as a sort of tribute act to Brezhnev? How come they end up with so little liberty, so little equality, so little fraternity? Why is it a police state? ( The author never mentions the CRS). Why do the French hate each other so much? Why are they always attracted to authoritarian solutions, left or right? How do they put up with having their lives micromanaged by the state, things closed when you want them open or not allowed to sell what you want, so that the only way to get a plastic bottle of Evian in Paris is to buy it from an illegal street trader? 

Why is the history so grubby and still unacknowledged as such – something on which Hazareesingh might have said more than he does. There is a marked contrast with Germany here. Fanon – a fine thinker and writer - gets in, but that’s about it. Why do they still go around denouncing each other? What is this childish rentreé into the trade union strike season all about? Why have they been  so incredibly conservative about everything down to smoking themselves to death, not learning English, being the slowest to adopt modern communications technology and media, thinking it part of les droits du chien to shit everywhere, and so on and so forth? And one which surely ought to have interested the author more, Why do so few – even none – of their universities figure in World Rankings?

I have a suggestion. The author is incredibly well-read to the point where his book sometimes reads like short book reviews strung together. He should take a deep breath, put all that aside, sit down and write an essay setting out just what he thinks about France. He could title it How I think about the French, even write it in French and put it out, a hundred pages long, no more, through a Parisian publisher. He's done the spade-work already.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Review: Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography

I read this at a couple of sittings and enjoyed every bit of it. It's like Marxism; read this and you have the answer to everything. The ideas underpinning in it are strikingly simple, though only one of them is fully articulated.

First, even now countries are limited or enabled by their basic geography - where they are on the globe, whether they have rivers,mountains, natural harbours, fertile soil, forests or deserts. Marshall makes out a compelling case. Second, geopolitics - geographically influenced or determined political possibilities and necessities - geopolitics is always Realpolitik. Your neighbours are unlikely to be your friends and you have to prepare for the worst. It's always going to be Them or Us, a zero-sum game. You must always be ready to fight.

It's this second, less articulated theory which gives the book its Boys Own Annual feel. They ( usually China, Russia) are out to get us and they will get us if we don't get there first. It's true that Marshall quite often shows understanding for and even some sympathy for what they are about - he gives a very good account of why President Putin felt he had no option but to take Crimea - but his suspects are the usual suspects and he has a Foreword by Sir John Scarlett (Tony Blair's man at MI6 and not exactly a persuasive choice) to back him up.

Keep that reservation in mind but do read the book. It's very well done and full of ideas and small asides you will never even have thought of. He does, for example, give an interesting geographical explanation of why the Americans eventually decided to use the H-bomb on Japan though it doesn't explain why they didn't give the Japanese a demonstration of its power on empty land before they used it on real cities. True, that would not have had the shocking power of the real thing and the Americans felt that it was the viciousness of the Japanese military spirit - don't forget their war crimes - which had to be broken.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Available Now: Trevor Pateman, Materials and Medium - An Aesthetics

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In store now at Basil Blackwell, Broad Street, Oxford  and online at

Also available  at &

Review: Lauren Elkin - Flaneuse

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There was a time – and I don’t know when it ended – when if you were self-assured, had the necessary leisure and some ability to write, you could write about pretty much anything which took your fancy, expressing your opinions or sentiments, often in short literary form (the essay), and you would have a decent chance of finding a publisher who would put you into print. You would then become a contributor to the genre of Belles Lettres.

At some point, belles lettres got put under pressure and specifically by professionalised academic writing where it was obligatory to distinguish fact and opinion and, in either case, obligatory to situate what you were saying fully and explicitly in the field of what other people had been saying - and preferably, very recently saying. The footnote and the Bibliography are the outward markers of academic writing - you might even say invented to mark the difference with belles lettres.

Publishers - and I suppose readers too - became wary of belles lettres. What was left from what academic writing had taken over was fiction, poetry and journalism, including the journalism of book reviews. Nowadays, the last bastion of belles lettres is the serious book review or essay in one of the serious Reviews: The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Financial Times, and so on.

Lauren Elkin situates her book within academic writing by providing copious notes – which I felt under no pressure to read – and a fairly long Bibliography. But the jacket design – very messy, actually – title page and quaint publishing house (Chatto and Windus) situates this as a non-academic book. On the jacket flap we are told it is “Part cultural meander, part memoir” – I am surprised they put it like that because this is tantamount to saying that the book is belles lettres.

And none the worse for that. It’s an interesting read, the short quasi-academic studies spliced with personal narrative and the stage set changing from city to city. The title and sub-title Flâneuse: Women Walk The City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London is not misleading but I would bet a bit of money that the author was under some pressure from literary agent and publisher to make it all hang together so that it could Fit into some category – social history or literary representations of the city or sexual discrimination at street level or just autobiography. There are many possibilities, some of which would have led to the writing of a dreadful book, dull and correct and easy to shelve. 

I enjoyed reading this book, though she lost me for a moment when late on she mentions keeping a dog in Paris, a dog shit city when I lived there (1971 – 72) and even long after. But I did find her narratives of Parisian history helped me understand how and why I have come to dislike Paris. She narrates the tragedies which today repeat themselves as farce: the ritual demonstrations, the immature bad temper (they were still honking car horns last time I went, albeit less fervently than in the 1970s), and the intense conservatism of the radicals, who think that the past is the model for the future right down to the cigarettes they still smoke. If you think Ruritania is stuck, try France - a country haunted by a collective memory of which several parts still have to be denied. Empire and Collaboration for starters.

I think the weakness of the book is that Elkin does not quite know what she stands for. On occasion, she expresses a forceful opinion or cracks a telling joke but much of the time she muses, a bit ironic, a bit fey. I made a mental contrast with Katie Roiphe. She should strike out a bit more, strut her stuff rather than stroll it .

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Deborah Cameron's Summer Reading Picks

Times Higher Education summer reads 2016
Members of the higher education community tell us about two books they plan to take on holiday: a new must-read and a classic worthy of a second look

Deborah Cameron
Professor of language and communication, University of Oxford

I’m about to embark on a project that involves revisiting the classic texts of second-wave feminism, and I’m planning to begin with a book I haven’t read since I was 20: Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, an ambitious attempt at what its author called “a materialist view of history based on sex itself”. My new book is The Best I Can Do(degree zero), a collection of short essays in which the philosopher-turned-stamp-dealer Trevor Pateman reflects on everything from bus passes to the semiotics of lipstick – and whether scholarship should be a hobby rather than a salaried occupation.

THE, 14 July 2016

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Review: Robert Roper, Nabokov in America

The core of this book is a scholarly study of how Lolita was made.It's clever idea was to notice that Lolita is a road-novel in which Humbert Humbert and Lolita criss-cross America by car and then to ask how Nabokov, a Russian emigre who arrived in the USA in 1940, aged forty, knew the roads. The answer is that Nabokov travelled them and did so primarily in pursuit of butterflies though ostensibly on the way to this or that lecturing job. They were long trips and they absorbed whole summers and Nabokov made copious notes about everything - roads, motels, sky-scapes, landscapes. All the time, he was collecting butterfly specimens for museum collections where he had a paid curatorial role.

Roper makes a fascinating piece of road-scholarship out of this and it only weakens when at the end he throws in a study of Pale Fire and a brief review of Nabokov's later life in Switzerland which could have been left out. In contrast, there is nothing here on Nabokov's role in the making of the first film version of Lolita.

Roper tracks the geographical sources of specific passages in Lolita and does the same for literary sources and antecedents in Nabokov's own writing. He turns up interesting facts such as the information that one of Nabokov's colleagues solved the problem of his own taste for nymphets by marrying a fourteen-year old (there being many more places where this could be legally done circa 1930s - 1940s than there are now). Nabokov duly absorbs the information his colleague volunteers.

I thought this an interesting and worthwhile book. I would have cut the chapters which don't belong and I would have asked for more insight into the extended collaboration between Nabokov and his wife Vera, who agreed with Nabokov that he was a genius and who clearly played a large part in keeping the show on the road, literally and metaphorically - she drove, she took dictation, she wrote lots of the letters needed. But the nature of their relationship remains opaque; perhaps it was essentially banal, like the political positions they occasionally espoused.

Though the book has been adequately proof-read, someone forgot to check the Contents page with results for which that someone ought to win a prize for negligence.

Added 19 May:

I left out what may be the most important thing. In all those road trips across America, Nabokov was not driving. His wife drove or a student hired as a chauffeur drove. Nabokov sat in the passenger seat or the back seat writing. Even in the posed photograph on the front cover of Roper's book, he is not in the driving seat. I need to go back to the book and check if he ever drove at all - maybe did not know how to. It may be important: driving in the 1940s and 1950s was surely marked as a + M masculine characteristic. Nabokov ducks the + M role - and as a result gains writing time.

Thursday 7 April 2016

On sale now: Trevor Pateman's new book The Best I Can Do

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This is the cover, ready for its ISBN barcode 978-0-9935879-0-0. Inside, 165 pages of text occupied by 26 essays as listed on the cover, extensively rewritten from my Blogs. Paperback, cover price £8.95

Available from Amazon, Blackwell and Waterstones online

Monday 28 March 2016

Review: Richard Murphy, The Joy of Tax

This is an interesting, articulate book which criticises the United Kingdom's failing tax system and proposes a fairer system and - at the same time - defends the legitimacy and effectiveness of deficit financing. It gets better as it goes along: the final chapter is very good indeed in setting out a coherent progressive vision for UK tax policy. My doubts centre on some of the lacunae, the things Murphy does not write about. An enthusiast for government borrowing, treated as the painless creation of debt which can be put to good use, he nowhere mentions two things: debt servicing and Greece – the former is not mentioned at all and Greece gets just one mention for the size of its black economy (a quarter of total output).

Debt servicing matters for a number for reasons. It’s true that most governments still have remarkably little trouble selling bonds, even long-term ones, which promise a fixed return each year. They have been doing it for centuries. But problems can arise and they usually start in the second-hand market. Suppose a government issues a £100 bond promising 5% per year (that’s £5 to the bond owner once a year) plus face value back when the bond expires. Suppose it prices the bond at £100 and sells out. If the bond market thinks that 5% is generous and that the government is a dead cert to repay and that inflation is likely to be low, second-hand bonds may start to trade at higher than the original price. In contrast, if 5% seems mean or there are doubts about whether the government will repay or concerns about inflation eating away the repayment value then the second-hand price will fall. All of these things can create problems when the government issues its next lot of bonds. They may have to drop the price to £90 or £80 and still pay out £5 a year on the face value and still have to come up with £100 at the end even though they only got £80 or £90 to start with. It’s a further complication that if the bonds are traded internationally, it becomes relevant what foreigners think they can use £s for. If they think there is nothing the UK makes or does which they will want to spend their pounds on, then that will adversely affect their valuation of the bonds on offer. In the real world, some countries have currencies which are to all intents and purposes worthless outside their own boundaries because no one outside can think of anything they would want to do with that currency. It’s only if you start offering fantastic rates of interest that they may begin to look around to discover if maybe your economy actually produces something worth buying or buying more of.

There is also the small matter of how the government finds the money to pay the interest and repay the bonds. If it spends sensibly the money it gets from bond sales, then economic activity will increase and (in a well-run state) tax revenues will increase with it and there is no problem – money will come in to service the debt. In other words, bond money has been used to invest, to make things happen which otherwise wouldn't. This is the virtuous cycle which Murphy simply assumes. But if governments give away the money on electoral bribes ( “Everyone can now retire at 50!”) or if it has a corrupt or inefficient tax collection service ( = Greece), then no money will be generated to service the debt. In such circumstances, governments can try to sell new bonds to pay the debt on the old ones but sooner or later the market will realise that the government is now running a Ponzi scheme and will refuse to buy the bonds. At this point, the government can ‘fess up that it cannot service its debt and go into default. Or else, it has to cut back on important activities like the health service and schools and divert the money saved to paying interest on debt – at which point it loses popular support and in addition the ability to go on funding the retirement at 50 it has made everyone think was possible.

Somewhere in this interesting book such matters should have been addressed.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Review: Gerald Steinacher, Nazis on The Run

This review was first published on 27June 2011. It has been posted,unchanged,here to link to the immediately preceding Blog about book publishing.

This is the most unsatisfactory academic work that I have read for a long time. I will explain why shortly.

At the end of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of people were on the move right across Europe. As Allied soldiers in vast numbers moved deeper into Italy and Germany, vast numbers of people moved in the opposite direction.

Who were they? There were civilians trying to get back to homes they had left, either as forced labourers or refugees. There were Jews who had survived the Holocaust, many or most of them traumatised, not trying to return home but instead looking to find a route out of Europe and - generally - a route to Palestine. There were those who, for many reasons, did not want to end up in Russian-occupied or Soviet-subservient areas, including not only those from eastern Germany and central Europe but also from the Balkans. There were "ordinary" criminals who had pursued regular criminal lives, thieving and profiteering, under the shelter of Nazi criminality. There were probably some ordinary German soldiers who had done nothing particularly wrong but who did not want to live in Germany any more. And there were SS and Nazi personnel, including war criminals, large and small.

Many of these very many people gravitated southwards, down into Austria, across the border into Italy and then, quite often, out of Europe altogether through the northern Italian ports: their destinations were Latin America, the Middle East, North America, Australia.

Steinacher is primarily interested in those who were wanted or who knew they should have been wanted by the Allies: the criminals and the war criminals, high-ranking and lowly, many of whom evaded justice and emigrated, mostly to Latin America and mostly to Argentina. But some of them just hid out in Italy and, in due course, made their way back to Austria or Germany with new identities.

Steinacher's book fails for a number of reasons.

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph. D.

Second, though it points the finger at the civil authorities in South Tyrol, at the Vatican, at the International Red Cross and at the US intelligence services as aiders and abetters of criminal escapes, the finger wobbles. Steinacher gives us no precise idea as to the proportion of criminal elements among the many thousands of people on the move who sought help from these agencies. He simply fails to paint the larger picture, clearly and in detail. At the end of the book, you have no idea whether the criminal element was one in two or one in two thousand desperate people knocking at those doors (except that you can figure that the US intelligence services were in a different position - they knew who they were dealing with and they only wanted to deal with dodgy characters, especially after the anti-communist dynamic came to dominate after 1947).

Third, the book is largely useless to anyone of a straightforward lawyerly frame of mind. Steinacher constantly suggests answers, but rarely can one pin down a clear answer to these kind of question (let's use the Vatican as an example):

What civil or criminal offences , if any, did Vatican official X commit in rendering assistance to a fugitive of justice or as-yet uninculpated criminal, Y?

Was the whole Vatican orgnisation implicated in the activities of its individual officials, so that it should be regarded as a criminal organisation rather than just as an organisation which housed criminal officials?

To answer these questions, you have to work out if official X knew or had good reason to suspect that Y was being sought for crimes committed or was on the move because of such crimes, even if not yet inculpated. Steinacher simply doesn't work it out for most of his illustrative cases.

And you have to look at funding decisions and at euphemisms and "Confidential" markings in official correspondence.

True, there is the obstacle that the Vatican archives for this period are still closed to outsiders - the best evidence for the claim that they will incriminate, all the way up.

Some of the things Vatican officials did can be explained without imputing criminal intent. Many people had no documents and officials were willing to take your word for who you were and give you a document saying that you were who you said you were. This then allowed you to present yourself to the International Committee of the Red Cross who would furnish you with a one-way travel document to which you could then get a Latin American visa affixed.

The slackness of these procedures can be explained both in terms of having to work under pressure - there were a lot of people knocking at your door - and as a basically charitable, humanitarian response to human distress.

But when someone told you they had been born in A when you could tell from their accent (or their mother tongue) that they had never been near the place, then you became a party to fraud when you helped them fabricate a new identity for themselves. Even more so, when you suggested a suitable identity. (South Tyrol figures largely in Steinacher's story because its unsettled legal status meant that if you claimed to have been born there, you could also claim to be stateless and that meant the Red Cross, rather than the International Refugee Organisation, could deal with you).

In addition, Steinacher is able to claim that when high authorities in the Vatican and ICRC were told that their on-the-ground bureaucrats and systems were allowing wanted war criminals to escape from justice, they did little or nothing to change personnel or tighten up procedures. In both cases, it began to look as if the only "identity" you needed was that of being anti-communist.

All this said, Steinacher leaves us in no general doubt that in 1944 - 47 there were numerous Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers in South Tyrol, in the International Committee of the Red Cross and in the Vatican, who helped Nazi war criminals escape from Allied justice. This included people in senior, powerful positions - like the Pope's friend, Bishop Hudal - who knew exactly what they were doing and why.

Many Nazis ended up in Latin America, especially Argentina. Some ended up working for the CIA. It would be another book, but an interesting one, to trace the part they played in the reactionary politics of their adoptive countries and the amoral realpolitik of the CIA. Perhaps the invasion of the Falkland Islands was not just about Argentinian nationalism but also about Nazi revenge.