Monday, 9 December 2019

Delighted to be British

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past John Higgs calls Britain a "divided island [which] has lost a workable sense of identity". He journeys along Watling Street in an attempt to understand that division and because, "when you lose something, you retrace your steps until you find it again."

In "Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past" Higgs explores some of the quintessential myths and histories that feed into a sense of British nationality: the White Cliffs, Thomas Becket, Dick Turpin, bawdy humour, the sport of rugby, Merlin, Boudica. By the end of the book, we realise that some ideas of identity are shared by some British citizens, others by others, but not all by everyone, whether they live in the UK or not.

Whichever stories give you a sense of national identity, Higgs warns against the idea of national pride which tends towards nationalism. A sense of national identity, "should not make anyone proud to be British; it should make them delighted to be British."

Friday, 29 November 2019

All the freedom that loneliness brings

Quartet in Autumn (Plume) Quartet in Autumn traces the lives and thoughts of four office workers in London over the course of about a year, as they approach retirement. Written in 1977, Barbara Pym had herself reached the age of her protagonists and she paints a bleak picture of how the over 60s are viewed by those who are younger.

Marcia was "ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement." Her colleagues "shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks." Janice, her social worker was patronising, and her neighbour Priscilla sanctimoniously believed "the poor souls just long for somebody to talk to."

However, one can't help but feel that Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman must take some responsibility for their own loneliness, which seems to be the result of a genteel English middle-class politeness and aversion to prying. There are plenty of opportunities for each of the characters to get to know each other better and yet they choose to remain aloof.

Pym's Excellent Women is funnier, although there are moments of humour, for instance in Letty's interaction with David the country cleric. The Sweet Dove Died is more acerbic in its treatment of an aging woman, but Quartet in Autumn most deftly captures the reality of pensioners' expectations of life in old age, with "all the freedom that loneliness brings," especially for those like Letty, who owned "no photographs, not even of her friend Marjorie or of her old home, her parents, a cat or a dog."

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

They won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown

The Past is Myself & The Road Ahead Omnibus: When I Was a German, 1934-1945
'You may think that Germans are political idiots [-] and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Such was the opinion of many in Germany in the early 1930s, including Peter Bielenberg, the lawyer husband of Christabel, an English woman who took German citizenship following her marriage. The Past Is My Life is based on diaries she kept while living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, through to the end of WW2.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, with "only two other National Socialists with him in his Cabinet," there was a belief "that he was well hemmed-in" by the respectable, old-school elite politicians of the Weimar Republic. However, "the whole process of what was called 'co-ordination' was over and done with" within five months. Hitler became Germany's dictator.

How could the political situation change so fast? Bielenberg's memoir is not a historian's analysis, but shows how a shared feeling of being betrayed at the end of WW1 fed into the propaganda that was used to justify military aggression. Her viewpoint is privileged, not that of the working-class, yet it provides plenty of insight into living in the Third Reich as an opponent of the regime. What particularly comes across is how exhausting it was to be constantly on guard against making a thoughtless comment, and the need to be wary of every new acquaintance.

Peter Bielenberg's description of Hitler as a clown should sound a warning bell in 2019. One should be wary of buffoonery and deceit, neither of which are impediments to reaching the highest position of Government.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Good story, disappointing book

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story What makes a good book? There are as many answers to this question as there are readers. And this reader's requirements weren't met by Hyeonseo Lee's The Girl With Seven Names.

That's not to say it isn't a good story. It's an autobiography/memoir of a North Korean woman who defected "by mistake" aged 17. She lived and worked as an illegal immigrant in China for several years before making her way to South Korea, where she was automatically entitled to citizenship. Then she executed a plan to help her mother and brother to defect and join her. They now all live happily ever with her American husband in the USA.

Most of what I didn't like was the writing style. The first section contains a description of childhood events as she "was told about them", perhaps by her mother. The language is stilted and cliched, as one might expect from an inexperienced writer. Most annoying was the overuse of anticipation: many chapters ended with a phrase, sometimes a paragraph, that served as a harbinger of some terrible event. This device, perhaps intended to keep us reading merely reduced the impact of future episode. By the third section, the writing style had improved somewhat.

Finally, the book is overly trite. In the prologue the author says she came to understand "that we can do without almost anything - our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family." Does Hyeonseo Lee really believe this? By the end of the book what comes across is that those who are seperated from family and birthplace when they are young are able build a life elsewhere. "Home" moves with you. It was clear that over time, distance and lack of contact, the writer was unable to see things from the same point of view as the family she left behind.

An alternative history of World War II

The Man in the High Castle The Man in the High Castle poses an alternative history in which Japan and Germany were the victors of WW2, but don't be fooled by the book's blurb: "Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. [-] All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war - and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan." This is misleading. Sure, slavery is mentioned once, but it has no bearing on the story. There is one Jewish character, but to promote this as a key theme is also deceptive. So, forget about slavery and the Jews.

The story is set mostly in San Francisco, in the Pacific States which are governed by the Japanese. It opens with Mr. Tagomi visiting Robert Childan's American heritage store to collect a poster he has ordered as a gift.

Philip K. Dick describes the lives of people who depend on the I Ching to make decisions, forecast outcomes and to understand life. America functions according to the mores of the Japanese, who are strict, but at least fairer than the Germans. However, this is of little comfort to those like Robert Childan, who as an American will never attain "high-place" no matter how much of the conqueror's culture he has assimilated.

From a British point of view the book raises the question of what "winning" the war meant, especially if you take into account the strong economic growth of both Germany and Japan, the "losers", compared to the post-war struggles of Britain.

A dislikable protagonist is no barrier to a good book

I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, [-] but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable [-]. I would be honest and reasonable, generous where generosity was due, and I would always always choose the road that led to a happy, healthy, normal life.

So says George Crawley, whose missionary father had been murdered for his faith. In Tim Parks's Goodness, George and his sister Peggy return home with their mother, whose "one thing I regret in my life is the words they made me speak" before they killed her husband.

George narrates his story in two parts: Before Hilary, and Hilary. In the first half he looks back on his childhood and early married life, when he firmly stuck to his own moral code. He is quite a dislikable character, self-centred and unable to empathise with others, convinced he knows best, and blaming his own problems on the faith-based ethics of others.

He's disappointed that his mother "could never marry a man who had broken a solemn vow to someone else," thus depriving her son of a new father. He believes his sister Peggy, unmarried and pregnant, was "erring in sentimentality and romanticism," and "refusing to look long and hard at future reality, future practicality," in happily refusing an abortion. He never quite understands his wife Shirley, never asks the right questions because they might elicit the wrong answers for him and his chosen way of life.

In the second half of the book we see George in a different light, his life turned on its head with the birth of his severely disabled daughter Hilary. He struggles against the hand that life has dealt him, whereas his mother, wife and sister just "get on with things, that's life."

A dislikable protagonist is not a barrier to a good book, and just as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal by Zoƫ Heller was fascinating in her dislikability, so is George Crawley. The ending didn't suit me, but that's a personal preference and won't stop me reading more of Tim Parks's stories.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

To do evil that good might come

The Confidential Agent A ferry makes a foggy approach to the Port of Dover in the atmospheric opening of The Confidential Agent. Graham Greene's descriptions are no less brilliant when the action moves to London and to a mining village. Unfortunately I didn't much care for the characters.

D., the eponymous protagonist, has come to England on a mission to buy coal. An ex-academic, he has been widowed by the civil war that continues to be waged in his country. He is also something of a pacifist with principles, as he says, "You've got to choose some line of action and live by it. Otherwise nothing matters at all." Unfortunately the rebels and their representative agent L. are also after the coal. Greene used capital letters for his characters in order to avoid giving them a specific nationality, nonetheless, with the hindsight of 70 years, it's hard not to imagine that they are Spanish.

The book is one of Greene's "entertainments" and it touches on the theme of the immorality that war imposes on people: "you couldn't count strangers' lives in the balance against your own people's. When war started the absolute moral code was abolished: you were allowed to do evil that good might come." This theme was very prescient at the time of publication, considering that within six years London experienced the Blitz and Germany the bombing of Dresden.

Half way through the book the pace picks up, when The Hunted of Part 1 becomes The Hunter of Part 2, but it's probably my least favourite Graham Greene so far. He wrote it in six weeks in 1939 and the narrative sometimes feels agitated, occasionally almost manic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he was fuelled by Benzedrine at the time.