Poetry Corner: Robert Lowell

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I live near an old whaling port, and the air I breathe is usually sea air.  Having grown up in a city far from the coast I can tell you that it’s very different.  However, by some distance, the most nautical, seafaring, ocean-soaked environment that I’ve ever been to is Cape Cod.  The Perfect Storm is not a great movie, but it does capture something of this essence – life on the edge of a vast and dangerous ocean. Another poet who had a remarkable gift of evoking the sea was Orcadian George Mackay Brown, from another community where the sea, with its gifts and snares, permeates daily life. Interestingly, Lowell visited the rarely travelled Brown in Orkney – see this great little memoir. The only other writing that I’ve come across that’s comparable when it comes to conjuring up images of man and the sea is Masefield’s short and brilliant Cargoes.

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Nantucket

But back to Lowell. A manic depressive New Englander who died aged only 60, in 1977, he was highly successful in his lifetime, albeit life was never smooth for him. Oddly, like Mackay Brown, he was a convert to Catholicism.

This poem is longish, but worth it.  The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (1946. Try this very brief interpretation)

[FOR WARREN WINSLOW, DEAD AT SEA]
Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. 

I 
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— 
The sea was still breaking violently and night   
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, 
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light   
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,   
He grappled at the net 
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs: 
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   
Its open, staring eyes 
Were lustreless dead-lights 
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   
Is blocked in yellow chalk. 
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea   
Where dreadnaughts shall confess 
Its hell-bent deity, 
When you are powerless 
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced 
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste   
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute 
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet   
Recoil and then repeat 
The hoarse salute. 
II 
Whenever winds are moving and their breath   
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,   
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death   
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear   
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall   
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall   
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash   
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,   
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears   
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash   
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids   
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids   
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,   
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush   
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush   
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones   
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast   
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East. 
III 
All you recovered from Poseidon died 
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine   
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,   
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,   
Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod   
Guns, cradled on the tide, 
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock 
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand   
Lashing earth’s scaffold, rock 
Our warships in the hand 
Of the great God, where time’s contrition blues   
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost 
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died   
When time was open-eyed, 
Wooden and childish; only bones abide 
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed   
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news   
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost   
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale’s slick   
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:   
“If God himself had not been on our side,   
If God himself had not been on our side,   
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,   
Then it had swallowed us up quick.” 
IV 
This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale 
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell   
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools   
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:   
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,   
Snatching at straws to sail 
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,   
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,   
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals: 
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail 
For water, for the deep where the high tide   
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.   
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,   
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,   
The beach increasing, its enormous snout   
Sucking the ocean’s side. 
This is the end of running on the waves; 
We are poured out like water. Who will dance 
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans 
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
V 
When the whale’s viscera go and the roll   
Of its corruption overruns this world 
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole   
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword   
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat? 
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat 
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,   
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,   
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears   
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags   
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,   
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,   
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers   
Where the morning stars sing out together 
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers   
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide   
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side. 
VI 
OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM 
There once the penitents took off their shoes   
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;   
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file   
Slowly along the munching English lane,   
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose   
Track of your dragging pain. 
The stream flows down under the druid tree,   
Shiloah’s whirlpools gurgle and make glad   
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad   
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see: 
Our Lady, too small for her canopy, 
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness   
At all or charm in that expressionless 
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before, 
This face, for centuries a memory, 
Non est species, neque decor, 
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes 
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,   
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem   
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham. 
VII 
The empty winds are creaking and the oak   
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,   
The boughs are trembling and a gaff   
Bobs on the untimely stroke 
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell   
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;   
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,   
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:   
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh   
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,   
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil   
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife   
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time 
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime   
And breathed into his face the breath of life,   
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.   

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

 

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Anne Frank in 2017

Amsterdam is good in parts, as the saying goes. The red light area is appallingly exploitative and not remotely OK, and the oddly named coffee shops are exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of well paid decadent stoners. Fun for 10 minutes and that’s it.

The touristy stuff is good,no doubt, but like many middle class travellers, my slightly snobby instinct is to avoid the obvious tourist traps. If I’d done this in Amsterdam, and missed out on the Anne Frank House I would have made a very big mistake. The best time to go is not long before it shuts, when the queue has died down.

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I won’t provide a review, just a few observations. Three in fact.

  • Anne herself, despite the diary, is not the main focus. She is a sweet normal girl, but hard to know – something of a cipher
  • The ‘star’ – if you can use the word for such a grim background – is Anne’s father, Otto. Everything about him seems admirable, far-sighted, brave, noble. A suitable figure to invoke on Father’s Day. The famous picture of him staring into space in the house, long after the war, is pinned to my office wall. The house only stands now thanks to him. The Dutch government would have let it be demolished. He was an exceptionally canny reader of people.
  • Anne would have survived the war had they not been betrayed by the locals. Not enough people realise this. Like in so much of wartime Europe antisemitism was never far away, with some notable exceptions. Betraying the Jews could be very advantageous. Lots of countries’ citizens were complicit, with history repeating itself. The Dutch resistance was a sporadic affair – despite its typically Verhoeven over the top production, the film Black Book makes some good points on this.

Why does this matter? Well, antisemitism is now ingrained in the ‘most popular politician in Britain’ – Mr Corbyn – and his wretched schizophrenic Labour Party. He did of course lose the election, despite the hype, but he got a lot of votes. Apart from the demerits of his other exotic policies and affiliations, what this means is that a very large swathe of the British electorate is effectively indifferent to antisemitism. If you ask them, they’re probably against it in a sort of vague it’s-not-a-priority way. That’s not good enough. Particularly in a Western European scene riven by overtly Jew-hating Islamic fundamentalists.

The civilised Dutch could morally atrophy so quickly that they could send a young girl to certain death for short term gain. The Guardian’s Nick Cohen has written numerous powerful pieces on this (1, 2, 3), over a long period. He’s watched the problem grow and grow, in his own political group. As he says: If it is incredible that we have reached this pass, it is also intolerable. However hard the effort to overthrow it, the status quo cannot stand.

It should make us all think.

**two hours after I wrote this, this appeared on my Twitter:

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Golden rule: for ‘Zionists’ read ‘Jews’

 

Lent and Pasolini

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If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.

How to write about music: Bach’s Chaconne

I was at a funeral last week, and the music in the crematorium as we filed out at the end, was Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, which although appropriate to the deceased, was another example of the sometimes irritating quirkiness in the current vogue of remembering our recently departed. I’ve heard Queen’s I Want to Break Free more than once. The relevance is that for a good while I’ve thought that I’d like to have the mourners at my own send off have to sit through the entirety of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin, which usually comes in somewhere between 14 and 15 minutes.

This is not some sort of revenge fantasy, but rather a reflection on the fact that I do not think that there exists, in the entire canon of Western music, a piece that contains within it so much of what is to be human. It’s all there: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, War and Peace, and the Judaeo-Christian belief system. If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not intended to be, it genuinely does seem to me to contain all human experience, particularly all that is noble and good. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true.

The trouble is, I cannot say why it seems to contain all that. It just does. My earlier post on this theme applying skills in one discipline (writing) to an entirely different one (music), was about Beethoven’s string quartets, emphasising the brilliance and verve of Roger Fiske’s prose, in conjuring up what made Beethoven’s Op18 no 1 so special. Here all I can offer is an entirely different take,  which is the veteran violinist Kyung Wha Chung providing a technical analysis of the Chaconne, interspersed her expert enthusiasms (taken from Gramophone magazine, September 2016. Click on each picture).

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My feelings on this are not remotely original. It’s probably the most famous solo violin piece of them all. Many people will already know that it’s really just the final movement of BWV 1004, Bach’s remarkable Partita no 2 for solo violin. There are literally hundreds of recordings, but my favourite is still the first I heard, by Nathan Milstein. The almost equally profound piano arrangement (by Busoni) is similarly ubiquitous, and again my first recording, by English gentleman Ronald Smith, is still my go to option. To close with, and see if any newcomer can see what I mean, here is the unique Gidon Kremer, a Jew, playing this truly universal  masterpiece by Bach, a Lutheran, in a Catholic church, as recommended to you all by The Knife (a Catholic).

Spain, cultura and me

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If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.

The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.

1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists  set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel  Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (12 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a  clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.

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…in Valencia

That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversial  HV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.

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Roy’s autograph from 1930

Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again.  So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.

There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend  the stairway  to the royal tombs  and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:

In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.

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**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great  Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)

Blair: batten down the hatches

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My thanks to the wonderful @smithsky1979 for her #blairroll

The spectacle of Tony Blair as an apparently sincere penitent – albeit one still laden with his predictable list of hubristic justifications –  doesn’t surprise me at all, at this stage. The very first post on this blog, back in 2010 was about Blair’s apparent search for atonement in the truest sense. At that time I was confidently expecting Chilcot to report within the next year. It does surprise even me though, that Blair has ended up in quite such an abject state, when seen from the perspective of 1997.

A little context. Back in the time of  John Major’s government in the early 90’s, the UK was doing quite well. After Major’s appallingly selfish and ideological pursuit of the deutschmark (a folly which doubled my mortgage briefly, in 48 hours, not that JM cared about such things), the economy was booming, relatively. It was to be a golden inheritance for Labour, the exact opposite of the scorched earth bequeathed by Brown in 2010.

In about 1993 I began to notice Blair as an unctuous and slightly cocky Shadow Home Secretary, popping up on the TV. I’d seen Gordon Brown in action at the Commons as Shadow Chancellor under John Smith, and for all his faults, he seemed then a far more substantial figure than the glib Blair. After Smith’s death it became rapidly apparent that, under the youthful Blair, Labour were going to win the next election, irrespective of the economy.  I remember on election day in 1997 sitting in the operating theatre coffee room saying that Blair appeared to me to be a flighty and unserious chancer, albeit an ambitious one. The uniform response was “you can’t possibly want the Tories back in”. Nobody except me seemed to have any concerns about Blair**.

That election night I stayed up till two watching it unfold,  and by then the enormity of Blair’s majority was already apparent. He would clearly be in power for years. The phrase that kept going through my head was “batten down the hatches, this will take a long time to get through”. The next day at work everyone was delighted that the groovy young Tony was in and everything would be fine.

My concerns, which were pretty much completely borne out, related to the very clear message that this administration would intentionally change the social, cultural and moral fabric of the country, and eventually, through the timeless expedient of spending money they didn’t have, they would wreck the economy too.

I  usually date the completed initial phase of the first of these malign objectives to the release of the worst film ever made, Love Actually ( I’m serious), in 2003, which was basically a New Labour 90’s zeitgeist epic of the worst kind. The second objective was apparent by the financial crisis of 2008. It took them 11 years to destroy a booming economy, but they managed it. In case anyone is still spinning the line that it was all secondary to American subprime mortgage lending (Brown’s favourite excuse), then I would direct you to a prophetic book by two British hacks – the esteemed Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson – called Fantasy Island, which was published in 2007. If you don’t believe me, read the synopses (1, 2 and 3). Truly the Blair/Brown government was a disaster on a huge scale, despite their aggressive and largely successful debasement of the government spin apparatus under the enduringly loathsome Alastair Campbell, which subjugated an already enthralled media.

So I wasn’t remotely surprised by all this, it was obvious to me when I first set eyes on Blair, and I took a lot of shit for it. The endless supply of people all willing to slag Blair off now, and over the last few years, are mainly the people who voted for him in three general election victories, a point made eloquently by James Kirkup. What a bunch of hypocrites.

That said, I never thought he’d become the crazy and infantile warmonger, which role has now, finally, skewered him.

Which is why I have to laugh at the endless bleatings (eg: 1, 2, 3) from Guardian writers and others now, post-Chilcot, who spent the period from 1997 to 2008 drooling over Blair and Brown. I don’t remember too much genuine opposition from them to the Iraq debacle back then. Jeremy Corbyn, Ming Campbell, the late Charlie Kennedy and Robin Cook all take credit for their stance at the time. A special mention goes to the routinely reviled George Galloway (see below), the only person who predicted in detail the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Their  reasons for opposition varied, but they have the moral high ground today.

Max Hastings neatly outlines the stage on which Blair played out his monumental and ego driven disaster: “What took place was only possible because in 2002-3 Blair was an immensely popular Prime Minister with a personal dominance that enabled him to persuade or conscript the rest of Westminster and Whitehall to support an Iraqi adventure overwhelmingly driven by his own hubris and moral fervour.”

I doubt that there will be any article written in the aftermath of Chilcot that expresses the tortuous hypocrisy  of the British public and media in all this, than Brendan O’Neill’s, in Spiked. As he rightly puts it:

The important, humane task of understanding the history and politics of that calamity in 2003 has been sacrificed at the altar of allowing a needy elite the space in which to say: ‘Blair is evil, and I am good.’

I can already sense a neat dividing line developing when considering Blair’s legacy: Iraq bad/all else good. For the purpose of clarity – and going back to where I began this post – I would refine that to: Iraq bad (Blair sort of penitent)/most of his other stuff also bad (Blair unrepentant).

The criticism rightly heaped on him for Iraq, and on his many, many aiders and abetters  should be spread around on most of his other endeavours too. A messiah complex unburdened by caution and intelligent reflection is unlikely to come good at any point. This was a truly awful government, lead by a figure who since then has become more and more unhinged.

I should leave the last word to the hated yet prescient George Galloway, confirming what Chilcot meant when he pointedly said “We do not agree that hindsight is required.

 

** as Stephen Glover puts it ” Only a hard core of widely disbelieved critics saw him as an untrustworthy fraud”

Poetry corner: Walter Raleigh sums it up

Apparently this one (What is our life?) is a high school curriculum regular. It’s a gift in that situation, being short, memorable and easily  read and interpreted. That said, it’s a mini-masterpiece too. Raleigh was 65 when he was executed, having previously enjoyed the favour of (the late) Queen Elizabeth. Given the mood of the times and Raleigh’s own markedly violent martial past, he must have known that there was a good chance that he would fail to make three score years and ten. Still,  65 is pretty good, but you get the impression that he’d lived with death on his shoulder for a long time.

What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

Life as ‘a short comedy’ is a terrific concept.

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“Life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years shorter than for nonsmokers” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta]

In praise of shorter novels**

Having just finished – and loved – War and Peace, and having also battled through/enjoyed Don Quixote, Bleak House and the like, I can state that I do like the long breathed mighty literary classic. “Battled through” can be the issue though. You have to pace yourself, something greatly aided by Tolstoy and Dickens pitching their chapter lengths perfectly.

However, I am grinding to a halt with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1152 pages), although I don’t think I’ve given up. Yet.

There is something to be said for the intrinsic advantages of the short novel. I don’t mean the short story. I’m not sure if I mean the novella either. Despite people bragging about knocking off Tolstoy in a long weekend, I mean the kind of book you can genuinely complete in a day or two, easy to carry if you’re travelling, and possibly just as satisfying as one of the behemoths.

As a comparison, here’s what I mean. I finished the ten on the right in less time than it took to do the bottom left. At my age (middlish) I’m not going to even get close to reading all the books I own (or listen to all the music I’ve bought).

I’ll keep at Musil, but Proust is in the bin.

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..all recommended, but how long have you got?

 

** a homage to a brilliant shortish book, Stephen Vicinczey’s near perfect In Praise of Older Women

Medicine – beauty amidst chaos

The work of medicine can be grim. Death, pain, madness, addiction, mutilation, indignity are all around you at times. How one copes with it as the objective medical practitioner is hard to define**. I personally feel that the ancient rite of passage of the dissection room in first year had considerable merit in this regard. Its abandonment in most UK medical schools means that current and future generations may be missing out on something other than knowing anatomy. Likewise, the cosseted world of the junior doctors’ contract and hours regulations means that the fruitful maxim, ‘they can always hit you harder’, becomes less true by the year.

Doctors, then, are changing. Their work by and large stays the same in its broad themes. You have to be able to cope with the dark side, which includes a significant attrition rate amongst our own – illness, fatigue, family crises, scandal etc.

Some of our coping mechanism comes from our personality and our background, some is learnt. Some relates to personal beliefs, often religious.  Either way, you have to acquire it in order to function. Here is a vignette from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a mini masterpiece of selfish young man nihilism, written long before trite pale imitations like American Psycho. The hero, Pechorin, is preparing for a duel in the Caucasus mountains, seconded by his worried doctor friend, Werner:

“Why so sad, doctor?” I said to him. “Haven’t you seen people off to the next world a hundred times with the greatest indifference? Imagine that I have a bilious fever, and that I have equal chances of recovering or succumbing. Both outcomes are in the order of things. Try to regard me as a patient stricken with a disease you have not yet diagnosed–that will stimulate your curiosity to the utmost. You may now make some important physiological observations on me . . . Isn’t expectation of death by violence a real illness in itself?”

This thought struck the doctor, and he cheered up.

A true and shrewd observation, which most medics will recognise: the awfulness of illness and death is mostly genuinely fascinating, and can be its own reward, in a strange way.

cauc4
Pechorin country – the Gergeti Trinity Church in the Caucasus mountains

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**As an afterword there is a good quote from Russian/Armenian/American author Vera Nazarian, the parentheses are my own contributions:

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side (doctors who can do the job, but who get out into management etc ASAP).
You can go around it.
You can dig under it.
You can fly over it.
You can blow it up.
You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there (usually become Public Health ‘experts’ in the UK).
You can turn around and go back the way you came (doctors who don’t cope and drop out of the tough specialties) .
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home (the frontline doctors of any challenging specialty who stick it out).”

[I’m still working on career analogies for the middle four *]

*see first comment below

 

 

 

A polymath’s* notes on War and Peace

Vereshagin.Napoleon_near_Borodino
In a huff: Napoleon on the Borodino Heights. Vereshchagin, 1897. State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow

When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.

1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them

2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.

3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.

4. I read the superb Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, but it’s generally held that none are bad as such, though Maude and Briggs are probably the next in line. Comparing them all is a sport in itself.

5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.

6. Having recourse to a map and  historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)

7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.

8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright:     Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?

9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI  ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.

10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).

Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):

For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.

You’ll find it at various points:

Vol III  Part 1  ch I

Vol III  Part 2  ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part  3  ch I; II; V

Vol  IV  Part 1  ch IV; V; VI, Part 2  ch I; II; XVIII; XIX  Part 3  ch I; XVIII; XIX

Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative  part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword

You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done,  with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.

Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.

11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight

12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)

13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.

14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.

15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.

16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.

wap1
Hmmm

…and….

wap3
Schama, in the FT “the next time will be my ninth” etc

…and back to the Guardian….

wap2
…ahem

 

*…this is not necessarily true