How to write (an occasional series)

I have in the past lauded Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online, for his remarkable ability to marshal facts, argue his corner and knock out umpteen witticisms in extraordinarily concise and punchy prose. Possibly his most famous knockdown was his commentary on the now annual State of the Union address, but it’s one of many. Here’s the opening:

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.

He had, too.

That was more than three years ago, and this week Brendan O’Neill (1, 2, 3 ), hero of free speech and independent thinking courtesy of Spiked Online, has his say in the Spectator, on Blair’s possible Brexit comeback. It has a similar ‘oomph’. Here’s the opening:

Here they come, Tony Blair and his tragic chattering-class army. The former PM, whose rictus grin and glottal stops still haunt the nation’s dreams (well, mine anyway), is on the march with his pleb-allergic mates in business and the media. Blair and the Twitterati, linking arms, united in their horror at the incalculable stupidity of northerners and Welsh people and Essex men and women and other Brexiteers, their aim as clear as it is foul. They’re here to save us from ourselves. ‘Tony Blair is trying to save Britain from itself’, as one report put it. Excuse me while I pop an anti-nausea pill.

Yes, Blair, the political version of Michael Myers, the nutter in the Halloween movies who just cannot be slain, is back. Again. Remember when PMs were dignified and would bow out into their cobwebbed corner of the Lords when it became clear the British public had had a gutful of them? Not Blair. He’s considering a return to the frontline of politics, according to reports, because he wants to halt Hard Brexit. He feels so ‘passionate’ about this, he says, that ‘I almost feel motivated to go right back into it’ — ‘it’ being politics, public life, our daily lives. Make it stop, please

I doubt that he’s the sort that would accept a knighthood, but if he maintains this standard (he will)……

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Snappy dresser O’Neill
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Easter Saturday: there is a great silence on earth today**

I’ve posted on this four times previously (1, 2, 3, 4), in part because it’s such an intriguing day.  Bryan Appleyard tweeted 3 years ago: Easter Saturday, a catastrophic, hopeless day of no hope. Some say all Beckett’s work takes place on Easter Saturday. I guess that hopelessness is how it felt back then, around 1984 years ago. But if you’re a believer it’s different – you know what’s coming. This astoundingly good Mantegna painting sums up the Appleyard view…

Andrea_Mantegna_-_The_Lamentation_over_the_Dead_Christ_-_WGA13981
Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, 1480. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

……it looks to be all over. But the mysterious activities behind the scenes, so to speak, on this Saturday are Christ entering hell, as seen in this engraving, also by Mantegna. Note that Christ is trampling down the gates of hell, with the souls in limbo waiting expectantly through the open door…

Andrea_Mantegna_-_Jesus_Cristo_descendo_ao_limbo
Mantegna, Descent into Limbo, ~1475, V&A collection

..and you may ask what that’s all about? I went into the background to it here. It’s decribed in the Catechism as the “last stage of Jesus’ messianic mission”, to “preach even to the dead”. It’s produced some pretty flamboyant painting, such as this derivation of Rubens, Bosch and other Low Country painters…

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Jan Brueghel the elder, Rottenhammer, Christ’s Descent into Limbo, 1597. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Easter Saturday then is quite a day. The transient attempted secularising of Easter makes no difference to these awesome traditions and beliefs. Here is a fine blog post on the Limbo thing and its depiction, if you’re interested, and also a great study of the ‘Appleyardian’ view in painting.

** the title is from the famous and highly poetic sermon of Melito of SardisSomething strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modesty

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In a week when Barack Obama is conducting a farewell tour in the Far East, and commendably visiting Hiroshima whilst thus far avoiding the outright apology urged on him by Guardianistas (though not this one)and their US equivalents, it’s worth contemplating what an astonishing achievement the US Pacific campaign was.

This very brief introduction by the finest of popular historians, Victor Davis Hanson, gives a flavour of the challenge, unprecedented then and now.

The Knife has a particular fascination with the unbelievably intense combat of the battle on Tarawa, but really that gruelling pattern of fighting was repeated countless times in tiny islands over a mindbogglingly huge area of ocean, punctuated by occasional colossal naval and air battles. The ‘Greatest Generation‘ epithet is not remotely overstating it. They’re still out there, people like Buck Miller.

Who was responsible for the victory? Lots of people, but in terms of the actual strategy and combat, the admirals cited by Hanson take most of the credit. The more you read about them, the more in awe one becomes of their legacy. One might expect admirals, like many surgeons (this one included), to have occasional ego issues.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey was an unpredictable hot headed man with a very pointed degree of aggression and an ability to rub everyone up the wrong way.  As his communique said at the conclusion of hostilities “Cessation of hostilities. War is over. If any Japanese airplanes appear, shoot them down in a friendly way”. However, when asked years later about the campaign he disarmingly stated:

There are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.

Not bad, for someone who had a lot to boast about.

His colleague, Admiral Raymond Spruance took it further, possibly claiming a title as the first ‘slacker’ admiral in the process, despite being a superb and calm leader in times of crisis:

“When I look at myself objectively, I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution….Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.

Wonderful, on many levels.

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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.

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Hmmm

…and….

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

…and back to the Guardian….

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…ahem

 

*…this is not necessarily true

 

Easter Triduum 3

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Nikolai Ge, Heralds of the Resurrection, 1867, Moscow Tretyakov Gallery

 

Nikolai Ge was a successful Russian realist painter with elements of symbolism and expressionism. His portraits are terrific, notably of Tolstoy, but he majored in religious themes and his Easter pieces, such as Christ with Pilate (Quod est Veritas) and Golgotha are superb. His Calvary in the Musee d’Orsay is quite stunning.

The Easter Saturday interlude

3-Harrowing-of-Hell-Exhibition
Peter Howson, The Harrowing of Hell
Howson is a Glasgow trained painter with an extraordinary life story.  A lot of people find his works a bit too brutal and ‘excessively’ religious. He’s a real artist though, and achieves real recognition – Manhattan exhibitions and all that.

Today is the mysterious Easter Saturday. From the famous ‘ancient homily’ said to be by Melito of Sardis, in the Office of Readings:

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

harrowing-of-hell-15th-century-french-book-of-hours-at-huntington-library
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How to write about music: Beethoven

One of the things I cannot do is have music I really like – or want to like – on in the background. I’m referring to classical music primarily, and in particular, Beethoven. There is so much to hear even in the early less radical stuff, but it easily goes in one ear and out the other if I’m not giving it my proper attention. It also feels vaguely disrespectful. Less so with Mozart, who for all his genius, definitely churned out a lot of filler.

Describing what you’re getting is hard to do well. Having got to know, sort of, Beethoven’s late string quartets, as they’re usually called, though you can probably never fully ‘know’ them, I’m starting from the beginning this year. Opus 18 no 1, the string quartet in F major. Here is a fine brief summary of it, by the pianist Peter Hill. I quote: “The opening of the first movement bristles with the suppressed energy and explosive contrasts we expect from early Beethoven, while the music’s continuity arises from the perpetual transformation of ideas, in particular the opening motif with its characteristic turn“. Not a bad description, and here is the coiled energy of that first movement, played by the uber precise Afiara Quartet

Wind it back to 1957 though, and here is the altogether more vivid prose of the late Roger Fiske , in the essential Chamber Music, edited by Alec Robertson, a legend of British classical music criticism:

fiskelvb18-1
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You don’t have to be able to read music – I barely can – to get the gist of that and its  ‘philosophical point among equals’. The last phrase is exactly right: the first movement in question is indeed basically six ‘dusty looking notes’ polished to 24 carat gold. Beautiful and concise. You get the feeling Beethoven would have liked it too.

**If anyone is interested in guides to Beethoven’s amazing quartets, try 1, 2 and 3

 

Lent, again

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, carne vale (farewell to meat). Today, therefore is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. Whatever Lent may or may not mean to you, it is not a Christian version of Ramadan, despite what a few bishops might have misleadingly indicated. Bruegel nicely portrayed, in his usual slightly sarky way, the difference between the last night of Carnival, and the Lenten 40 days to follow:

Peter Bruegel the elder, The Battle Between Carival and Lent, 1559  Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Peter Bruegel the elder, The Battle Between Carival and Lent, 1559 Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The picture that The Knife usually shows here is Spitzweg’s highly evocative Ash Wednesday:

Carl Spitzweg, Ash Wednesday, 1860. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart
Carl Spitzweg, Ash Wednesday, 1860. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

…and it’s always worth remembering Kay Burley’s faux pas on Sky TV, when US vice president Joe Biden turned up with his ashes

Joe, and a friend
Joe, and a friend
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…here’s one I made earlier. Lent is a slightly strange time, but it is a very human experience.

Luck, cancer, me, and you

A colleague of mine wanted to implement an idea put to him by one of his friends, when faced with a pile of CV’s  – a hundred or more – belonging to job applicants. He would throw them in the air, and then chuck half of the randomly scattered CV’s in the bin. He knew he didn’t want to employ them, because “they’re the unlucky ones. I don’t want unlucky people”.

A neat circular argument, and actually, when you think about it, a correct one. They are indeed unlucky. In fact, the best argument against the scheme is to say that ‘luck’ as a personal attribute, irrespective of its ubiquity in everyday speech, doesn’t actually exist.

...his luck ran out
…his luck ran out

A tricky one. Napoleon famously said “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?”, which suggests that he did view it as a personal quality. He muddied the waters a bit by expanding in a subsequent conversation: “All great events hang by a hair, I believe in luck, and the wise man neglects nothing which contributes to his destiny”. Which suggests that the ideal, where someone is so fortunate they can sit around without making any practical efforts, probably didn’t entirely convince Bonaparte either. This chimes with the associated famous quote of Gary Player, which everyone knows, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”.

This is on a day when the papers have latched on to the tantalising concept that most people who get cancer are just…unlucky.  All those bad habits – and a few good ones  – usually aren’t involved.

This unlucky thing makes sense, at first. The scenes out of Breaking Bad, or the British TV ads that show the bad news being delivered – you’ve got a tumour – are pretty close to the mark. Not a moment you forget.  And yet, there is another perspective. Richard Smith was the editor and (former) clinician who transformed the august British Medical Journal into the public health/global warming obsessed lefty house rag that it is today. After accomplishing that he then amusingly skipped off into the enormous international private healthcare business. For all his faults though, he’s not an idiot, and he’s just got himself into some trouble with the counterintuitive (at first sight) observation that getting cancer could actually be a lucky thing. The caveat, perhaps, is it depends how old you are. Here’s the Daily Mail quote:

Death from organ failure – respiratory, cardiac, or kidney – will have you far too much in hospital and in the hands of doctors. ‘So death from cancer is the best… You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

‘This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.’

As it happens, I blogged on this a bit last May. Smith has a point. The original BMJ blog is beautifully observed, and well worth reading, as is the thoughtful response after he’d endured his 10 minutes of gleefully overhyped public indignation, and a Twitterstorm. As I write, I can report that the acute takes in my hospital are crammed with elderly people with variable degrees of cognition, multiple pathologies and travelling from care home to hospital, then back again. Many are in their nineties. There is such a thing as living too long.

A semi-detached clinician like Smith, then, gives a valuable ‘alternative’ perspective. Two economists of sorts provide more. Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has a brilliantly acerbic blog which performs the truly valuable function of skewering numerous self regarding ‘public health’ initiatives and propaganda. Here he is musing on the bad luck argument versus the ‘ban everything’ crowd:

This is really just another way of imparting the same information. ‘Large minority of cancers caused by lifestyle factors’ is no different to ‘Most cancers not caused by lifestyle factors’ except in its emphasis…….But the change in emphasis is very significant. The Boxing Day story was inspired on a Cancer Research UK press release whereas today’s report is based on a study published in Science. Moreover, the CR-UK press release gives a much higher estimate of how many cancers are lifestyle related. It attributes more than 40 per cent to lifestyle factors (smoking, diet and drinking, mostly) whereas the new study finds that only a third of cancers are due to lifestyle factors, environmental factors and hereditary factors combined.

None of this is to decry cancer research or cancer medicine, but a more philosophical overview has its place. We’re all going to die eventually, as Richard Smith eloquently notes. Tim Worstall, something of a polymath, offers a counterweight,  in this blog from the invaluable Adam Smith Institute:

But we’re afraid that it’s still an insane thing for anyone to say that we should not try to cure cancer. The mistake is akin to that made by so many of the slower thinkers about market interactions. Sure, if there’s only one single market interaction then as game theory tells us the incentive is to rip off the other party. But most market interactions are not one off transactions, they’re simply a part of a number of iterations of the same transaction. In which case the incentive is to cooperate to mutual advantage.

Looking to cancer the assumption being made is that OK, once suffered from one should simply fold one’s tent and steal away into that long dark night. Which is to entirely ignore the fact that as cancer treatments get better it’s possible to have a series of iterations. That first, that skin cancer, say is treated and two decades later the luck of the draw brings on, say, colon cancer which may or may not be treatable. The whisky and heroin option taken at that first iteration would then have robbed one of that 20 years of life. It’s entirely possible that cancer is that “good death” but surviving one or two brushes with it before succumbing would be even better.

This post began with luck, and ends with it. Worstall again:

It’s necessary not to starve to death, avoid being eaten by sabre toothed tigers, not get smallpox, for long enough for those multiplying cells to go wrong. Something is going to get you and the later, whatever it is, the more luck you’ve had.

...here's one I made earlier. Genuinely.
…here’s one I made earlier. Genuinely.