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Monday 13 January 2020

Review essay: Roger Scruton on Sexual Desire

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

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Sunday 12 January 2020

Review: Jon Day, Homing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 5 January 2020

Review: Bram Stoker, Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Advertisement: Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting

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

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15

Enquiries to   or

Regular UK stockists include Waterstones

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