Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’

 

How to become a good doctor

It’s been a busy month, and I have a backlog of books to post about. I’ll start with the first of a couple of non-fiction titles from recent reading: one about the process of becoming a doctor, the other about failing to protect the British people during the pandemic.

 Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions: A doctor’s story, Fleet hardback, 2021. 248 pp.

Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions front coverThe author graduated in 1995 with a degree in English, then, after a few jobs, became an editor at Grantamagazine. On an exotic beach she had an epiphany and decided at the age of 28 to become a doctor. A junior doctor she met gave her a tip for her medical school interview: when asked why she wanted to become a doctor, not to say ‘Because I want to help people’ – everyone says that. But that was the answer she gave.

Her training began in 2003. This book is her entertaining and illuminating account of that process, from F1 through to qualification, rotating through different specialties. When she decided to become a GP, her colleagues were incredulous: that was for those not good enough to become specialist surgeons or whatever.

I was alerted to this book by hearing Harrison interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, in which she told Michael Rosen about those sections of the book dealing with the language used by clinicians. These were the most interesting parts of the book for me – though there are many fascinating sections about her other experiences.

Medical students were advised to talk to patients

in what we believed to be everyday speech, although it was in fact another language again: infantile, nursery-inflected. We called abdomens ‘tummies’ and warned ‘this might feel a little chilly’. We used soothing, neutered verbs. I learnt to ask patients to ‘pop’ off their clothes before ‘hopping’ up onto the bed, where I would just ‘slip’ this nameless thing I was holding up their noses or down their throats or up their ‘tail end’.

There was also the slangy practitioners’ jargon that often veered into dark humour (a kind of coping mechanism). And the specialised, obscure technical language of medical science, as Harrison shows from her anatomy classes:

 Once I had known that the thigh bone connected to the hip bone. Now I discovered that the iliofemoral ligament arises from the anterior inferior iliac spine and then bifurcates before inserting into the intertrochanteric line of the femur.

 Other chapters deal with Harrison’s learning about our bodies’ internal organs, end of life, observations, the heart, surgery and medicines (especially opiate addiction), women and babies (and her own experience of an emergency caesarean), and pain and how to describe and assess it meaningfully (you can’t).

The final chapter deals briefly with the Covid pandemic. Doctors, like the rest of us, had to learn quickly a whole new way of speaking and acting, with attendant acronyms: PPE, WFH. When a new consignment of boxes of protective aprons arrived at her GP surgery, a nurse exclaimed: ‘These are bin liners!’ Another practice had scrubs donated by patients, who had sewn together old sheets and duvet covers. In my next post I’ll discuss a highly critical account of the British government’s hopelessly inept response to this crisis, and its continuous stream of boastful misinformation about the horrific reality on what they liked to call ‘the front line’.

Ultimately in The Cure for Good Intentions it’s the author’s stories about people and the ailing, imperfect bodies we’re all born with that provide the energy and hope in this engaging account. We’re all going to get sick and decline at some stage – as we all know only too well during this pandemic – and we all fear this inevitable process. Thank goodness we have caring, humane doctors like Sophie Harrison to look after us when we do.

The final paragraph sums up what she learnt going through medical training and acquiring the new idiolects of the doctor’s world:

I had learnt, at least, that medicine was not about finding new ways to express yourself, or how nicely you could put together a sentence. It was about trying to understand what others meant, not just the words they said.

 

 

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic. Bloomsbury (2013). 295 pp.

Fragments of narrative from different periods of history with different characters gradually coalesce and cohere into a story about endurance, conflict, love and loss – and lots more in between.

Colum McCann TransAtlantic coverTransAtlantic opens in Newfoundland in 1919. Alcock and Brown make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Ireland. That Canadian-Irish connection is one of the elements that binds the fragments together. A local reporter of Irish descent, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter Lottie, cover the story. Lottie gives a letter to Brown and asks him to deliver it to the recipient in Ireland. The fate of that letter, what happens to Lottie and others around her, form the basis of the novel.

One of the other elements is the slightly incongruous story of a fund-raising/lecture tour of Ireland made by the former slave Frederick Douglass, who was campaigning to raise support for the abolitionist cause. The people he meets are part of the mosaic of narrative fragments that form the final finished picture of the novel.

We also see Senator George Mitchell as he commutes between his American home and family and the peace negotiations he chairs in Northern Ireland.

These various narratives are told with verve and plenty of local colour. There are weak characters and strong, sad and happy. Just as in real life. Many of them have their lives destroyed by war, terrorist acts and humankind’s general capacity for cruelty.

Somehow for me it didn’t entirely work: the parts are better than the whole. Partly I think the complex structure is over-contrived. Also the prose style has some irritating features. I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, I know, and I should maybe be less picky. But McCann loves making paragraphs and sentences out of tiny fragments, perhaps because he thinks this reflects the novel’s larger structure. Here’s a random example; a middle-aged woman stands and watches Douglass across a crowded room – she hasn’t seen him for years, and recalls the last time, when she was just seventeen and a housemaid:

Standing outside Webb’s house. Bidding him goodbye. The early Dublin light. The shaking of hands. So unusual. The creak of the carriage. Later the butler, Charles, rebuked the staff. How dare you. The smallest moments: they return, dwell, endure.

The prose here is perhaps a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the woman’s fleeting thoughts and memories, those ‘smallest moments’. But almost every page has at least one paragraph in that similar staccato style. Where we’re not privy to a person’s stream of consciousness/thoughts. It’s just the narrative style. Too many minor sentences. Like these.

McCann is also capable of some beautifully lyrical descriptive passages. I’ll end with a couple of examples, to redress the balance of this post. Here a group of people is driving in a car towards Wales:

They pulled up to the edge of a field and watched a falconer ply his art: the bird being trained on the end of a string, the long curl of his flight slowly learning its limits. It hovered a moment, then landed superbly on the falconer’s glove.

I’m not sure I fully grasp the significance of how ‘his’ and ‘its’ combine in that sentence, but that adds somehow to the almost mystical nature of this apparently inconsequential scene. Except the novel started with two aviators’ long ‘curl of flight’ across the ocean, learning their limits and those of their warplane converted into a transatlantic migrant – a raptor trained to land peaceably, superbly, in an Irish bog.

And again, a scene that becomes of central significance – an Irish lough:

The lake was tidal. It seemed to stretch for ever to the east, rising and falling like a breathing thing. A pair of geese went across the sky, their long necks craned. They soared in over the cottage and away.  They looked as if they were pulling the colour out of the sky. The movement of clouds shaped out the wind. The waves came in and applauded against the shore. The languid kelp rose and fell with the swells.

There are some lovely images, rhythms and sounds there – it’s prose poetry. Once more it’s more than just decorative scene-setting. Birds in flight remind us of that transatlantic flight. The image of the waves ‘applauding’ shouldn’t work, but does. Same with the awkward aptness of the clouds’ movement that ‘shaped out the wind’. Why ‘out’? It’s the wrongness of the word that’s right for this aerial event.

Not an entirely successful novel, then, but it has some fine moments and stirring scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines – and a kestrel

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Sort Of Books, 2012

This was lent to me along with Findings – an earlier (2003) Kathleen Jamie book of essays mostly about the natural world. My post on that one is HERE.

Kathleen Jamie Sightlines coverThis is another highly entertaining collection of meditations and observations on topics ranging from wildlife to Neolithic caves and burial sites, to the whale museum in Bergen and what diseased cells look like under a microscope – nature isn’t just ‘out there’.

Jamie doesn’t only describe things and places: she uses them as the starting point for philosophical, even spiritual musings on their significance – as moments in the historical process that she inhabits at the time of witnessing them.

She loves to project herself back to the times when these marks on the landscape (and human consciousness) were made – as in the essay on her participation at the age of 17 in an archaeological dig of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ‘henge’ site in southern Scotland. We learn as much about what Kathleen Jamie (and the other drifting youngsters helping with the dig) was like at that time as we do about ‘The Woman in the Field’ whose skeleton is discovered.

The lucid, rhythmic language, as in Findings, is evocative – these are a poet’s prose sketches. It’s also idiosyncratic. As early as page 3, in the opening essay on her cruise to the Arctic to see the Aurora Borealis, there’s this, as the visitors land on a windswept ‘goose-plain’:

It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but…it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld.

‘Inscousant’. I looked it up: neither the OED or various Scots dictionaries online recorded it. Google turned up a reference which turned out to be a post by another blogger, writing about this very passage! From the context it seems to mean the opposite of ‘strong’ – is it a typo for ‘insouciant’ (there are a few minor typos in other essays), a dialect word no dictionary recognises, or something Jamie made up?

Jamie is rather fond of other Scots expressions, like this, in a short impressionistic essay on the moon and its cycles:

Of course time passed. As the shadow crept onward, upward, smooring the moon’s light as it went, I half understood that what I was watching was time…

The Scottish National Dictionaries online has an entry on this (I include the first couple of literary citations; I’ve omitted some of the technical stuff):

v1intr. (1) To be choked, stifled, suffocated, to suffer or die from want of air…esp. to perish by being buried in a snowdrift. Vbl.n. smooring, death by suffocation.

Ayr. 1790 Burns Tam o’ Shanter 90:
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d.

Slk. 1807 Hogg Shepherd’s Guide 121:
Smooring. This is occasioned solely by the shepherd’s not having his flocks gathered to proper shelter.

 

The unusual vocabulary adds pungency to the otherwise plain, clear style, in keeping with the reflective tone.

Jamie digs deep into her own psyche or soul to discover how the outer world she explores resonates within her. So in that Arctic breeze, exhorted by her guide to listen to the silence, she hears it: ‘radiant’ and ‘mineral’, ‘deep, and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose.’

In my post on Findings I singled out Jamie’s gift for imagery; her simile here draws upon the earlier part of the essay where she’d been given a goose feather, causing her to reflect on how these birds had recently flown away from where she was standing: ‘To my mind, geese only travel north, to some place beyond the horizon. But this is that place. From here, they go south.’

What a wonderful way to show how she’d reached the earth’s roof. And it’s a notion delicately and even slightly humorously evoked in that simile, where she subverts the cliché about geese being clamorously silly.

Elsewhere in these essays Jamie brilliantly describes the dynamics and drama of a gannetry (a rocky island on which huge groups of gannets nest), and remote islands where a female killer whale teaches her young how to hunt seals.

Tidal creek in February sunFinally, as has become my custom since the pandemic changed how we live, a few images from recent walks.

We’re lucky to live very near to some beautiful tidal creeks. I’ve posted on this one before – it’s one of our favourite local spots. On the day I took these pictures the weeks of cloud and rain briefly ended and a spring-like sun shone.

Hovering kestrel A kestrel hovered just a few yards away from us, its raptor gaze fixed on the land way below.

On another walk in a local park I saw a cluster of these lovely violet-purple flowers in a cultivated bed. The shape of the bells resembles bluebells’, but the rest is more hyacinth-like. According to my flower identification app, they are hyacinths. I’ve never seen them this colour before – then we saw some more on another walk on a local country lane. Strange, isn’t it, how something previously unknown suddenly starts appearing often.

Tidal creekTidal creek

Cairngorm pilgrim: Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2014 (The Canons series)

‘One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.’

Nan Shepherd wrote this homage to the Cairngorm mountains mostly towards the end of the second world war, but was advised by a well-meaning correspondent that it would never find a publisher. She put the MS in a drawer where it remained until it was published ‘quietly’ (as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction to this edition) in 1977.

I find it as difficult to describe as he does:

A celebratory prose-poem? A geo-poetic quest? A place-paean? A philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge? A metaphysical mash-up of Presbyterianism and the Tao?

Mountains have long inspired powerful emotions in those who contemplate them. Edmund Burke, in his examination (1757) of all things ‘sublime’, such as mountain ranges, believed that ‘terror’ was its ‘ruling principle’. Until the time of the early Romantics, wild nature in all its forms, especially mountains, were viewed with similar misgivings, although there was always a concession that mighty vistas inspired feelings of awe. Rude nature was seen as something of an imperfection, a visual proof of the fall of humankind from grace. It was chaos – the antithesis of human reason and logic.

I came across a fine example of this wary attitude to nature’s wildness when listening to a podcast recently of the Radio 4 programme The Verb (dated 29.6.18), an episode called ‘Northern Rocks’ – about the craggy hills of the north of England. One contributor cited the English author and rent collector in Scotland, Edward Burt (died 1755; he was also a surveyor for the making of General Wade’s military roads there after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion). Burt wrote in 1727-28 about Scottish mountains in a grumpy letter to a friend (published 1754):

I shall soon conclude this description of the outward appearance of the mountains, which I am already tired of, as a disagreeable subject. . . . There is not much variety, but gloomy spaces, different rocks, heath, and high and low, . . . the whole of a dismal gloomy brown drawing upon a dirty purple; and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. But of all the views, I think the most horrid is, to look at the hills from east to west, or vice versa; for then the eye penetrates far among them, and sees more particularly their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another.Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London. Fifth edit., vol. i. p. 285. (Link to this quotation online HERE).

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain front coverWordsworth was to use the term ‘sublime’ about his beloved Lakeland mountain region in a more transcendendent sense, and he was influential in changing the largely negative attitudes to wild nature prevalent until his time (though there was a fashion in the decades before him for admiring the ‘picturesque’ – sanitised tableaux of natural scenes to be admired in urban drawing-rooms). Shepherd favours this Wordsworthian attitude, with a dose of sensuality, metaphysics and Zen thrown in. She’s also a sort of rural psychogeographer or flâneuse, if it’s possible to be one outside of an urban setting:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with them…

She has no truck with the (mostly male) climbers who seek simply to chalk up another peak to their tally of conquests. Mountains are not there to be vanquished. Her approach is more selfless, spiritual and poetic.

The dustjacket of this book carries a quotation from the Guardian newspaper: ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. I wasn’t convinced of this until the final three chapters. The poetic prose and lofty transcendentalism was a bit heady for my taste – though there were some lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as the topography of the mountains. Then I must have become attuned to the style and approach.

There are some memorable moments, like the description of her waking from a sleep outside her tent (in the summer, of course) to find an owl perched on her tent-pole. She writes beautifully about the ‘swiftness’ of many of the creatures that live on the mountain: the eagle, peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. But this isn’t sentiment or gush: as a sensible naturalist she recognises that being speedy is ‘severely practical’ –

…food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. … Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

This represents the best and worst of Shepherd’s prose style. That second sentence is, well, sublime, but I omitted a long sentence in that extract, which would to my mind have benefitted from some editing.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Here’s the final paragraph, that conveys this book’s essence:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into a mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Sort Of Books, 2003

Another book loan from my friends the owners of those imperious cats, Igor and Phoebe.

Kathleen Jamie Findings coverKathleen Jamie is a Scots poet. This book of short essays ranges in topic from birds and other wildlife, archaeological sites in Scotland and the Hebrides, to her husband’s grave illness after pneumonia, the view of Edinburgh’s lofty steeples and weathervanes, and its medical museum.

To call her a nature writer is to oversimplify. In an essay called ‘Markings’ she traces the cup-rings – circular carved shapes – scraped into the rock by Neolithic settlers thousands of years earlier, then visits the abandoned shielings – the high summer pastures for cattle, and the shelters their owners lived in while they grazed there long ago. As often in these essays it’s evident that Jamie studied philosophy. These aren’t so much ‘nature writings’ as meditations arising from her experience in nature and with people. Her poet’s sensitivity to place and language is revealed on every page.

Here for example she ponders describing places like this as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, even ‘wilderness’ – but concludes that this ‘seems an affront to those many generations who took their living on that land.’ Whatever caused them to abandon their shielings, they left subtle marks. ‘What’s natural?’ she asks herself. We’re having to ‘replant the forests we cleared, there’s even talk of reintroducing that natural predator, the wolf.’

Most of her sentences are like that: lucid, colloquial, unforced – natural, perhaps. Not overtly ‘poetic’ or florid.

She’s alert to the sounds and sense of every word she uses, and deploys them with unobtrusive precision. It would be good to hear these pieces read aloud. Many of her words are of Scots origin, wild and natural as the things they signify: those shielings; machair – from an old Gaelic word for Hebridean grassy plains; creels – wicker baskets or lobster pots; sheep or cattle fanks – holding pens.

She imagines the shieling women eating bannocks  and whey – flatbreads cooked on skillets.

She uses metaphor and simile sparingly, but when she does they’re just right. Some examples I savoured: in the title essay she sails with a group of naturalists to the Sound of Shillay (from the Gaelic for ‘seal island’); she describes walking on the beach and sometimes flushing a flock of feeding shore birds:

I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.

The title of the essay ‘Crex-crex’ is taken from the Latin name for corncrake. This shy brown quail-like bird is now very rare, having been hunted to extinction on the mainland. She stays on an island in the Outer Hebrides, one of its few surviving haunts. Her bird warden guide Sarah locates some and invites her to listen to their rasping call:

What does it sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile.

Now and again Sarah stops and tilts her head, all attention: ‘when she stops to listen she reminds me of a thrush on a lawn.’

Sometimes she relishes the opportunity to subvert over-used images, as when she enters a Neolithic burial chamber, a ‘dim stone vault’ (she’s fond of punchy, evocative monosyllables):

There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom.

Not ‘silent as a tomb’. This is ‘a place of artifice, of skill’, you feel the ‘self-assurance’ of the artificers who built this place, perfectly orientated to face the setting midwinter sun, whose rays would hit the tomb’s back wall in ‘a complicit kiss’.

She delights in the findings on another island: a gannet’s skull, sawn off from the body with her knife. Part of an aeroplane’s wing, of all things. Everything intrigues her – and hence, her reader.

She doesn’t single out and describe these findings as curiosities worthy of exhibition in a museum. She muses and makes connections that probably result from her training in philosophy. In ‘Darkness and Light’, for example, she ponders the semantic force of these words and our human reactions to them.

Peregrine falcon, from John Gerrard Keulemans – Catalogue of the birds in the British Museum. Volume 1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11058956

One of the best pieces relates her delight and anxiety in watching a pair of nesting peregrine falcons (and later, ospreys and an exotic crane in flight). She manages, without forcing the juxtaposition, to liken the precipitous ‘stoop’ of the peregrine on her prey – by diving down on it from above so it never knows what hit it – to the screaming Tornado jets that pass overhead, back from the war in Iraq. Later, her son asked her if they were going to be bombed. “No,” I said. “We will not be bombed.”

She hangs out of her window in her nightclothes one morning, scanning the sky for her peregrines with her binoculars. Her children demand their breakfast. This is a naturalist who feels guilty about making them wait, hungry, as she yearns to see where the female raptor will head.

Even cobwebs, observed by her door, glinting in the morning light, lead her to meditate on life and death as her husband fights for breath in hospital, his lungs infected.

 

 

 

 

#1930Club: William Faulkner, Helen Zenna Smith

#1930Club logoKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook are hosting this week’s #1930 Club: do go and take a look at what they’ve been posting, and join in with comments or thoughts of your own on anything from that year that you’ve read and want to share, here, and/or on their blog sites.

I’m just past p.1000 of Uwe Johnson’s massive Anniversaries, so don’t have plans to start a new book from 1930 while immersed in that, but didn’t want to let this week pass without some sort of contribution, so here we go, with two posts from the archive.

As I Lay Dying Penguin cover

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner As I Lay Dying cover with Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

My ex-library hardback edition is rather battered but has an appropriately abstract cover design; Vile Bodies (also been bashed around when in a library, rescued by me from a bin) I read pre-blog, so although it’s another 1930 publication I can’t link to it here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (link HERE), first posted in 2013. This was Faulkner’s fifth novel, and is a high modernist, fragmented narrative account (fifteen different narrators, each with a distinctive voice and idiolect) of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm. Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

Faulkner himself called it a ‘tour de force’: it’s maybe not a modest claim, but well justified.

Others have posted this week on my second #1930Club HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverchoice from the archive: Helen Zenna Smith’s novel Not So Quiet… My post was from the summer of this year.

It’s her riposte to Remarque’s similarly titled All Quiet On the Western Front, and deliberately foregrounds the experience of a female ambulance driver in the horror and carnage of WWI near the front lines. It’s one of the most compelling, unflinching accounts of that terrible war that I’ve read.

 

Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.

Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.

Brodsky and Marías on Venice

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An Essay on Venice. Penguin Classics, 2013. First published 1992.

Javier Marías, Venice: An Interior. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Penguin Books, 2016 [and part of the essay collection Between Eternities, 2017]. First published in Spanish, 1988.

Jan Morris, Venice. 3rd rev. ed. 1993; first published 1960 – next post

Brodsky, Marías and Morris book covers on VeniceMy previous two posts on Venice have touched on recommended Venice-based or –set reading; the Brodsky I read after my return from the recent visit with Mrs TD to celebrate her birthday – our first time in the city – and was inspired by this post by Karen at Kaggsysbookish Ramblings. She provides an excellent introduction and background to the Russian poet, and a perceptive review – so there’s not much more for me to add about his book here.

As she says, it’s a prose poem/meditation. I too found the strange visit to Ezra Pound’s former mistress, Olga Rudge (with Susan Sontag, of all people) a stand-out scene. There’s a beautiful anecdote about her first meeting with Stravinsky, at a violin recital she was giving (she was an outstanding concert violinist, which is how Pound first encountered her. She survived him by several decades and was buried beside him at San Michele).

He’s interesting on – and a little dismissive of — Pound as deluded politically; detention at St Elizabeth’s was ‘nothing to rave about’ in Russian eyes. The Cantos left him cold:

…the main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t realized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

He listens to Sontag trying unsuccessfully to deflect Rudge from her lengthy whitewash job on her fascist-sympathising, anti-Semitic lover; having dealt with countless ‘old CP members’ it was a tune that rang a bell. They left the house and found themselves, significantly, on the Fondamenata degli Incurabili.

Brodsky’s love for the city and its ‘serene beauty’ is rapturously told – ‘this city is the eye’s beloved’ – though he’s not blind to its occasional decaying squalor, its decadence and artificiality and superficiality. I wasn’t so keen on the objectification of women, including his unreconstructed lusting over the beautiful (married) Veneziana who met him at the station on his first visit and introduced him to her city.

Among several enigmatic images (others include his repeated, interwoven references to chordates and fish-eye perception; tears, surfaces, reflections/water, beauty and time – and a woman with mustard-and-honey coloured eyes) is a strange description of the ‘wonderful’ Bellini tempera portrait of the Virgin and Child that was in the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio sestiere near the Ghetto (he couldn’t have mentioned its theft in 1993, after he was writing this essay).

Bellini, Madonna and Child

Bellini, Madonna and Child (Wikimedia Commons)

He was unable to enter the church one night to steal a look at it, and at

the inch-wide interval that separates [Mary’s] left palm from the Child’s sole. That inch –ah, much less! – is what separates love from eroticism.

This is Javier Marías: he refers to

…the beautiful Bellini Virgin depicting a lunatic Christ Child who looks as if he’s either going to choke to death at any moment or pounce on his extraordinary mother…

When I look at the image I think it’s this description that makes more sense.

In fact the Marías essay is in some ways the most interesting of the three texts discussed here and elsewhere (though it’s probably apparent from some of my earliest posts at TDays that he’s one of my favourite authors: list at the end). Morris is more of a comprehensive guidebook, but his is the most vivid.

He can be as poetic as Brodsky in his palpable love for the city – he visited it fourteen times between 1984-89 – but without the sometimes mannered obscurity. His description of night-time, when the inky darkness accentuates the city’s ‘stage-set’ dramatic quality, is beautifully evocative. He also identifies in a few succinct, vivid images the essence and soul of this compact city (in theory one could walk from end to end in just over an hour; in practice this is impossible because of the dead ends and distractions).

There’s what he identifies as its harmony and homogeneity, its seediness and ostentatious glamour, and, paradoxically, its fragmentation and articulation.

He’s particularly good (as his title suggests) on the interiority of Venetians’ lives (‘they don’t go out very much’). And he’s characteristically funny, too: his account of the glamorous women (and men), who seem to be ‘always on their way to some elegant party’ when they do venture out accords with what I saw. Nearly everyone is chic and on display:

Singers at the theatre sometimes complain that their voices cannot be heard above the rattle of jewellery and that their eyes are dazzled by the glint of gold in the darkness, because some ladies do rather over-adorn hands, ears and neck in their eagerness to outshine, well, themselves, principally.

At the beach on the Lido they’re dripping in jewels (even when they go for a swim) and dressed to the nines.

He gives an entertaining account of the love-hate relationship between the Venetians and the hordes of tourists. Each sestiere or district (there are six, as the name suggests) has its own distinct atmosphere and ‘idea’. Locals from one area are unlikely to venture beyond the end of their nearest canal, rarely straying into the tourist honeypots – and they’re snootily dismissive of any place else. The same thing or person seen in one sestiere appears different in another (he gives the example of a beggar who moves about the city, shifting shapes mysteriously). I find these perceptions more human than Brodsky’s rather cerebral musings.

Marías identifies the strange ways that distances between places on the island can’t be measured by space alone. That account of the Bellini was to demonstrate that even though it’s found just a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal, it seems ‘a thousand leagues away’.

Both he and Brodsky are dismissive of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Both are good on the best perspective from which to admire the architecture: from the water. But they agree that only the tourists can afford the gondola. When my wife and I were there it was 80 euros for a half-hour ride. We adopted the practice of the locals: take a gondola traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euros. It only takes minutes but is a much better deal. Otherwise the vaporetto (with a tourist pass) is good value, but often crowded.

I could go on, but had better stop, but I must quote the closing lines of the Marías, in which he poetically relates the timeless beauty of Venice, as it impacted on him on revisiting the city twenty years after the first Spanish edition of this text in 1988, when its people and places might have been expected to be lost:

We probably only really lose what we forget or reject, what we prefer to erase and no longer wish to carry with us, what is no longer part of the life we tell ourselves.

Readers of his fiction will recognise that haunting allusiveness to the elasticity of time and experience, universalised.

Javier Marías texts posted about here include the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

The Infatuations

Thus Bad Begins

and the essay collection Written Lives

Next time, as I’ve gone on too long here, I’ll return to the Jan Morris.