Category Archives: Politics

A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.


You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.


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Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?

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If we throw away the key…

Two legal volumes hit the top of my TBR pile together. In Your Defence by Sarah Langford and The Secret Barrister (author unknown for obvious reasons).


Both books, written by professional barristers have a desired agenda: to present to the general public a picture of the justice system from the point of view of the prosecuting or defending bench.

These two books are not Scandi-police procedural novels, they are a genuine attempt to get us, the benefiters of a good, honest and just legal system, to understand better what is actually happening in court.

The Secret Barrister is a cry of alarm, using many exhaustively detailed reasons why our justice system is being steadily undermined, the author is desperately trying to get us to wake up. Fuelled by lurid newspaper reports we spend an unusual amount of our attention devoted to complaining about the National Health Service while at the same time our Justice system is being financially squeezed out of existence.

A country in which justice is eroded and enough people cannot see that justice is being done, will eventually take matters in its own hands: vigilante groups; rag-tag revenge gangs; summary local justice may follow, and that will mean anarchy.

In a single stroke of the Chancellor’s pen, the tax on beer was reduced by a penny, while the tax on cider and spirits was held level at the same time that the budget for the Justice system was slashed by an more or less equal amount. This does not make any sense.

The Secret Barrister asks why that should matter to us? The answer is that one day it might be you or me. If we were prosecuted, whether innocent or guilty as charged, we would want to have proper representation. But that, especially in the civil courts is becoming exceeding expensive, and beyond the reach of a growing proportion of the population. This book, though, deals specifically with the criminal courts, where legal aid is also steadily being eroded so that even middle income people are having to find the wherewithal to defend themselves privately.

In Your Defence, heartily endorsed by Helena Kennedy QC, is of a different kind. This is a book which, using an amalgam of disguised cases, demonstrates examples of how the law deals with different situations. Each chapter begins with an extract from different Acts of Parliament which are effective in law. For example: Children and Young Persons Act 1933. In this chapter, we look at a particular trial (which is not one trial but a simulacrum of many similar) from the defence barrister’s engagement, through to the trial itself and its outcome. The amount of time is takes to mount a defence, to defend and as well as to counsel the defendant. Each chapter has one defendant standing for many, and disguised so that there is no possibility of true identification.

But read in tandem with The Secret Barrister, it is a window on to a world that most of us hope never to visit.

Just as the NHS is there for those in need from the cradle to the grave, so the justice system should be also, and is not. If your chosen (or unchosen but real) lifestyle has led you to rely on the health service to get you back on your feet, you would not be impressed if the doctor was able to say, on your arrival in his surgery, “this injury/illness is a direct result of your actions, pay for the remedy yourself”. But as The Secret Barrister points out, this is very much the case in the courts. You may well find yourself funding your own defence, and if you have enough but not a huge amount of money and few assets you may find yourself in the claws of a very inadequate level of professional assistance, of failing that have to defend yourself (litigant-in-person) which might be disastrous, all because you and your spouse of partner are not eligible for legal aid.

Everyone should know about this and this is one way to find out. The next step is to do something about it. Letters to your MP, anyone?



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To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.




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Power and politics of today seen through Shakespeare’s lens

Sitting at home, a Professor of the Humanities was considering the forthcoming elections in The United States and possibly, Europe and wondering about what might happen, as one does. Then it did happen – Brexit, Populism and Trump. In conversation with others, he was persuaded to put pen to paper.

This all sounds ridiculous, but it is not far short of how Tyrant, Shakespeare on Power came to be written. In the Coda to this extraordinary study of Shakespeare’s plays and his times, Stephen Greenblatt admits that this was his very purpose: to see the situation in today’s political sphere through an different, but very accurate lens. By doing this he has shown the cunning way in which Shakespeare draws parallels from distant history from such an Oblique Angle that he avoids the penalties suffered by other contemporaries: Thomas Kydd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and many other less well known writers and pamphleteers.

Greenblatt on WSIn this extremely readable study of tyranny, Greenblatt selectively studies the careers of Richard III (Shakespeare’s version), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus, extrapolating from these plays the many ways in which tyranny can arise, thrive and fall. In the chapters on Richard III, the author goes right back to the Henry VI plays, threading through the gradual decline of that monarch to the rise and rise and fall of Richard, Duke of York (the father) to Richard of Gloucester (the son) who through treachery and deceit becomes King Richard III.

Ricardians (like myself) rise up in horror at this portrayal of Richard III, but nevertheless seen as through a glass darkly, as an explanation for examples of modern tyranny that has an uncanny resemblance to Stalin and Hitler, it is a masterpiece of exposition.

In one chapter, Enablers, Greenblatt looks at some of the fairly minor characters around Richard who have given him help to the top job, but whose assistance far from being rewarded becomes, in time, a growing paranoiac threat.  In Shakespeare’s play this is the case for the Duke of Buckingham, for example, failing to grasp the nettle of the two Princes in the Tower, he earns for himself, his own demise – if you are not for me then you are against me. How many of Stalin’s one time supporters ended up dead, and the same with Hitler? This chapter also shows the subtle use Shakespeare makes of the crowd.  The crowd becomes a tool for the playwright in many of these plays, in Julius Caesar, Richard III and especially in Coriolanus, and as his writing and skill developed so did the “crowd scenes” – and you have to remember that in his own times, there were crowds milling about the stage, in the Pit, you only have to be a groundling once at today’s Globe Theatre or the recent production of Julius Caesar at the new Bridge Theatre in London, to know how intimately involved you become in these scenes.

The chapter on Coriolanus reads a bit like a Guardian article after the election of Donald Trump.

In civilised states, we expect leaders to have achieved at least a minimal level of adult self-control, and we hope as well for thoughtfulness, decency, respect for others, regard for institutions. Not so Coriolanus: here we are dealing instead with an overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly, all unchecked by any adult’s supervision and restraint.

Sound like anyone on the world stage today?

Quite apart from its contemporary overtones, this is a wonderful study of the latter stages of Elizabeth I’s reign: ageing Virgin Queen, full of suspicion – with good reason – she had manoeuvred and managed her life, treading always upon a narrow causeway between the old Catholic and the new Protestant religion, unable to fully eradicate one or fully endorse the other and surrounded by plotters and supporters alike, who were looking on to the next event – her succession. Compared to her predecessors, Elizabeth’s reign had been remarkable. But blood was shed, sometimes unfairly; heretics – of both persuasion – were burnt; writers and demagogues punished. Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare managed his own journey, on an equally narrow causeway, with studied brilliance.

This book is not just for scholars and schoolchildren, but for everyone. A piece of work!

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Horror and tragedy in Italy

FacismThis book, A Bold and Dangerous Family, is a must read for everyone who loves Italy and especially Florence. Not because it encapsulates all the beauty, civility and cultural splendour, its superficial exquisiteness, but because it shows in merciless detail the hideous underbelly of that fair city.

Not least also, because it looks from the outside as though Italy is en route somewhere along the same trajectory today. This biography of the Rosselli family is a warning from history.

Caroline Moorehead has the ability to bring to life in detail all the machinations of the political turbulence that led to the dictatorship and tyranny of Benito Mussolini, the ideas behind the fasci, and then its terrible and terrifying consequences. But all this is refracted through the lives of anti-fascists, most particularly Carlo and Nello Rosselli and their immediate circle.

Brought up largely by their mother, Amelia, there were three brothers: Aldo, Carlo and Nello. Aldo was killed in the First World War, Carlo was the reactionary, the visionary who saw far into the future what fascism would bring to Italy, including war in Europe and Nello was the historian, who used Italian history as a way of showing where Mussolini was taking Italy; in fact his parallels were so transparent that he was persuaded to tone down his writings.

Ms Moorehead draw us deeply into the family Rosselli and their devotion to the cause of anti-fascism which in the end destroyed them. They were regarded as heroes after the end of the Second World War, their bodies exhumed from Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and brought back to be buried in Florence in a cemetery in Trespiano.

Attempts to bring to justice the men that killed them were futile, though the names were known. Many of the perpetrators of the scheming and execution of their killings, not least Mussolini and Ciano (his son-in-law) were already dead.

For another absorbing book by Caroline Moorehead see my post November 7th 2014 – Au revoir les enfants



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Lenten Fast

If you have followed or read any previous posts, you may know that in Lent I eschew fiction. So far, my copy of the Archbishop’s Lent Book has failed to arrive, though according to the publisher has been sent. So in the meantime, I have been flitting between the Middle Ages in Britain (and France); nineteenth century poetry and painting through the life of Edward Lear and the twentieth century through the lens of Stalin.

Weir Queens 1So in that order. Queens of the Conquest (1066-1167) is the first part of Alison Weir‘s study of the female counterparts to England’s kings from William the Conqueror presumably to Richard III. The first volume begins with Mathilda, wife of William I, she was regent for him in Normandy while he was conquering England, and she was then crowned in her own right in 1068 in Westminster Abbey. It concludes in 1167 with The Empress Maud (also sometimes called Mathilda as these names were interchangeable, as were Mathilde and Mahaut). I have a slight failing here, as I find Maud endlessly fascinating and frightening. Her life spent fighting against Stephen for the right of her son Henry (II) to succeed to the throne led to a civil war in England that caused famine and destruction on a vast scale, a time which contemporary chroniclers described as “a time when Christ and His saints slept”. [Incidentally also the title of a book by Sharon Penman which describes in fiction this whole messy period – see my posts written in July 2013 and January 2014 ].

LearWhen not immured in the lives of the queens, I travel forward several centuries to Edward Lear, poet and artist through a new biography by Jenny Uglow. Mr Lear A life of Art and Nonsense is infinitely readable and enjoyable. Lear lived in a golden age, a man of great simplicity and charm whose rhymes have enchanted children for years, and for years to come but who was also an accomplished water colourist, a traveller and adventurer in Egypt, Corfu, Italy, Palestine and India; contemporary of  Darwin and Dickens; teacher to Queen Victoria to whom he gave drawing lessons; and friends with Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. But he fits uneasily into all these categories. His nonsense verses and limericks set a tone of frivolity not usually associated with Victorian England; his paintings are naturalistic, empty of humans – exquisite renderings of landscape – but devoid of any hidden message, so neither romantic nor mysterious, in a age of photography they would be described as photo-realism.

Stalin 2Both these volumes might be described as frivolous compared to the other book I am reading, of which I can only read around one chapter at a time. This is the second volume (and there is at least one more volume pending) of Stephen Kotkin‘s magisterial and forensically researched biography of Josef Stalin. This volume Stalin Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941 covers probably the bloodiest, most unforgiving section of Stalin’s dictatorship: ruined by paranoia, betrayals, executions and gulags. It brings us teetering upon the German invasion. Two terrible dictators pacing their rooms, playing the waiting game. Each entrapped in their own logic and about to descend into the furious, destructive and, ultimately, final stages of the Second World War.

MaiskyAnother marvellous volume, The Maisky Diaries, edited and compiled by Gabriel Gorodetsky fits neatly into this period and expands the horizons. Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador to London at this time, 1932 to 1943.  At a time when most people even remotely associated with the Stalin regime kept no written records of their activities for fear of reprisals, the Maisky diaries are remarkably frank and intact and shine a searching light upon a volatile and crucial period of European history.

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