About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 27 December 2013

"The Pike" by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Gabriele D'Annunzio (his name means Gabriel of the Annunciation which seems appropriate with hindsight in that he was John the Baptist to Mussolini although he probably thought he was himself the Messiah) was an Italian poet, gossip journalist and multiple philanderer with a flair for endless self-promotion and a total inability to curb ridiculous extravagance. His poems, his novels and his plays combine meticulous observation with the grand passions of opera. They are charged with erotic and often sado-masochistic imagery. They shocked and sold. Getting ever more carried away with his own rhetoric, GD'A began to glorify war in the decade leading up to WWI. Following a peace in which Italy, despite being one of the victorious powers, seemed to gain little, GD'A 'invaded' the disputed town of Fiume and declared UDI with himself as its dictator. In many ways he becomes the bridge between Garibaldi and Mussolini in Italy's anti-parliamentary history. Certainly both GD'A and Mussolini had rapacious sexual appeitites; in this way he is also a cultural ancestor of another strong-man Italian politician Silvio Berlesconi.

There are clearly many ways in which Mussolini learnt from GD'A. H-H suggests that the speech style that GD'A developed and Mussolini later used is based on the call-and-response nature of the liturgy. GD'A led the way in ignoring parliament: he persuaded Italy to join in WWI despite parliamentary disapproval. GD'A also showed the fascists that it was possible to flout the law with impunity: having declared UDI, Fiume was regularly provisioned by pirate and bandit raids on the stores of the Allied armies blockading it; GD'A was finally allowed to leave Fiume unpunished. Finally, H-H suggests that the political spectacles beloved of the Fascists, and later the Nazis, was developed by GD'A.

In this biography Hughes-Hallett acknowledges her debt to GD'A's extensive notes (he even made observations when flying in an open-cockpit plane to bomb the Austro-Hungarian empire) but shies away from a simple retelling of his life on chronological order. Rather, she seeks themes, although these are mostly arranged chronologically. And she seeks explicitly to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between the romantic poet and the demagogue obsessed with blood.

She succeeds. This wonderful book really gets to the heart of its horrible subject. GD'A was not a nice man at any time. He was vain and carried self-satisfaction far beyond arrogance to the point where he seems to have seen himself as superman and the rest of humanity as disgusting and bestial plebs and proles. He was a famous seducer: women gave up reputation, husbands, children, fortunes and titles to be with him. He broke their hearts with his regular infidelities. The only person he truly loved was himself.

He is a child in a sweetshop when it came to possessions as well. Even when his wife and children were hungry he would spend the latest earnings from the latest journalism on trinkets and objets d'art. He fled from city to city, and even left Italy, because he was pursued by creditors; still his extravagances continued. Perhaps he didn't realise that his failure to pay his debts meant that someone else suffered but I suspect he didn't really care.

Was he insensitive or was he truly cruel? Whilst having an eight year affair with a famous actress, second only to Sarah Bernhardt, he wrote a novel in which the hero is writing a play for an ageing actress, once beautiful and promiscuous, who is now pathetic with stinking breath, who suffocates him when they make love.

If a deity's defining act is that of creation" says Hughes-Hallett then GD'A was a god; one of his heroes crash-lands a plane on a deserted beach and looks around and thinks 'There is no God if it is not I'. GD'A does not fear blasphemy: even Robinson Crusoe was only Monarch of all he surveyed.

He glorified war as an act of sacrifice; the blood of those who have been slain calls out to the living to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps, as H-H suggests, this is just an overt and honest version of the way we consider Afghanistan. We can't pull out if it means that all those who have died have lost their lives 'in vain' and so we are prepared to ask more young men to die. Perhaps GD'A, for all his selfishness and blood-lust and carnality, was just us without the pretence of being civilized.

Perhaps then we should blame the Romantic movement for Fascism and Nazism. GD'A and his peers extolled Art: in war they regretted the destruction of monuments more than the death of people. 

Of course, as H-H points out, GD'A was an aviator. He was "literally an Ubermensch"; he was above men, a Nietzschean superman. He was detached from the pain and the misery created by the bombs he dropped.

Although GD'A was a Romantic author who incorporated high drama with gushings of sentiment and lashings of passion into his prose, one way in which he excelled was in his meticulous observation. There seems to be a fashion in modern fiction writing to create a convincing character or scenario by providing a great deal of detail; this is often obsessive (for example in December by Elizabeth Winthrop). But D'Annunzio's descriptions were precise, the details mattered, the adjectives used were exactly right (H-H records that he would always give the exact shade of a colour). For example, he describes "sheep grazing incessantly, like leeches sucking sustenance from the wet ground".

This is a wonderful biography about a remarkable if horrible man.

December 2013; 644 pages

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

"Another world" by Pat Barker

Barker wrote the 'Ghost Road' trilogy and this book also links to the First World War. As Nick's grandad, Geordie, dies aged 101, Nick cares for him and tries to simultaneously cope with the demands of a dysfunctional reconstructed family: his daughter Miranda who is staying with him as respite from her mentally unwell mother, his pregnant wife Fran, their son 2 year old Jasper and Fran's elder son, Gareth, who is a very moody eleven year old. Their new house is an old Victorian mansion: as they are redecorating they uncover a spitefully obscene portrait of the previous owners hidden under the wallpaper.

This book crackles with tension. Ghosts appear and the truly unpleasant Gareth develops murderous tendencies. But it is never less than honest. The characters are three-dimensional: Gareth is scared stiff about his new school and worried that he will be victimised if he wears regulation school shoes. The horrid details of the progress of Geordie's death are told with brutal clarity and honesty. Dialogue is fresh and convincing.

This is a tale of the human condition. It is about growing up and getting old and dying. It is about the divided loves and loyalties within the heart of every family: when he returns from the first world war after his elder brother died at the Somme, Geordie's mother tells him that the wrong one came back. Gareth bullies and is buliied; he is both obnoxious and vulnerable. Miranda knows that she must behave like a girl, helping her step-mother to look after Jasper, but at the same time she resents it.

This book had a single fault: it was too short and I WANT A SEQUEL.

Brilliant. December 2013; 278 pages

Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Throne of glass" by Sarah J Maas

Celaena Sardothien is an 18 year old girl who is a slave in the salt mines because she has been convicted for being Ardarlan's most notorious assassin. Then Dorian, the gorgeous Crown Prince makes her an offer she cannpt refuse: to go with him to Riftholm's glass castle to compete with 23 other assorted cut-throats to see who will become the King's Champion. But in the castle the other competitors are meeting horrible deaths and Celaena becomes involved in the magic of the wyrd.

It's fantasy. It is so unreal. Not only is Celaena a brilliant archer, knife-thrower, swords-woman, climber and martial artist, not only is she impossibly beautiful, but also she is expert at playing the pianoforte, she loves reading and she is a chess grand master. And puppies love her. The only thing she can't do is play billiards. I knew it would be too good to have any chance of suspending disbelief when I discovered that she had killed, in an attempt to escape from the salt mines, her overseer and twenty-three guards. Not two, not three, but twenty three. Whatever.

It wasn't even written well. The plot rambled, introducing new elements to keep up some sort of momentum. There was very little difficulty in guessing the identity of the killer and the only real suspense was whether Celaena would finally fall for the Crown Prince or the Captain of the Guard. And the words. I can tolerate 'dove' and 'gotten'; they are American usages and I suppose I have to accept 'obligate' in the same context. But I was disappointed by the incorrect use of 'hopefully' and I was appalled when I encountered 'It'd'.

Dreadful stuff. It has spawned sequels. I shudder. December 2013; 406 pages

Friday, 20 December 2013

"Donne: the reformed soul" by John Stubbs

John Donne was born a Roman Catholic in the late Elizabethan age. He served on a couple of sailing expeditions with the Earl of Essex, for example raiding Cadiz. As a young man he was famed for spiky love poetry which usually commemorated his latest mistress. He became a civil servant and then lost his job because of his clandestine marriage to a lady who was clearly his social superior (he was an ironmonger's son). He spent a number of years unemployed, eking out a hand to mouth existence with a small inheritance, some help from friends (and eventually his reconciled father-in-law) and occasional rewards for legal work. Then he was persuaded to take holy orders, his wife died, and he swiftly became a renowned preacher and a pillar of the establishment, despite his love poet reputation.

So Donne's life was a colourful one and Stubbs (who also wrote Reprobates, another rip-roaring tale of the early Stuarts) does it justice. This is a brilliant name-dropper of a book. All the unlikely characters from the reigns of the first James and Charles come vividly alive:

  • Donne's maternal uncle Jasper Heywood, once the schoolmate of Queen Elizabeth, who possessed as a relic half of a tooth from St Thomas More (the other half belonging to his brother: they had fought over it and it miraculously broke in two); STM was Donne's great-grandfather. Jasper couldn't settle as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford so he moved to Rome where he became a Jesuit, then becoming Professor of Moral Theology at Dillingen despite refusing to utter a word in his viva voce exam. He was captured in an England where Jesuit priests were forbidden and escaped execution only on the intervention of Queen Elizabeth; having spent some time in the Tower he was exiled and died in Naples.
  • Sir John Wingfield, tormented by past dishonour, who, despite a bullet in the thigh, charged through Cadiz on a horse as the English took the town, being shot dead by a Spaniard for his pains.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh as an MP who, when fellow member Matthew Dale complained that he had not been able to stand to vote because he had been held down by the britches, commented that he had often prevented people from voting in just the same way.
  • Harry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland, descendant of Hotspur, who was known as the wizard Earl for his "avid interests in anatomy, alchemy, cosmography and distillation" who was implicated in the sidelines of the gunpowder plot and conducted alchemical experiments while imprisoned at the Tower.
  • Izaak Walton, Donne's biographer, who became best known later as the author of The Compleat Angler. As a Royalist sympathiser during the Civil War, after the disaster of the Battle of Worcester, he carried the 'lesser George' jewel to London whence it was ultimately restored to its owner, Charles II, in exile.
  • Padre Paolo Scarpi, an Italian friar, thanked by Galileo for helping him construct the telescope, whose work also contributed to the theory of blood circulation, who negotiated with the Vatican after Venice had been excommunicated for trying two clerics in a civil rather than a theological court.
  • Robert Ker, Viscount Rochester, a young blond Scot, one of the favourites of James I, who wanted to marry the Countess of Essex which he achieved by having her marriage to Essex annulled because she was inspected and found to be still a virgin. Ker, had his pander Overbury locked up in the Tower (probably because he knew too much about the Rochester-Essex affair) and later poisoned. Both Ker and his bride ended up in the Tower themselves.
  • Edward Alleyn, actor and impresario, who in his old age married Donne's daughter. He also was the poriginal founder and benefactor of Dulwich College.
  • Frances, forced by her father to marry Viscount Purbeck, mad brother of the Duke of Buckingham, who left him to live with her lover and the father of her child. On being ordered to atone for her adultery by parading through the Savoy Church dressed in a sheet, she managed to escape by using a pageboy dressed in woman's clothing as a decoy.
  • Even Donne's doctor, Simeon Fox, was the son of John Fox who wrote the Book of Martyrs.

Then there are wonderful quotations from Donne's poetry from the erotic "Licence my roaving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, above, below." to the sarcastic (lacking in any sympathy for sea-sick passengers on a ship) "Some coffin'd in their cabbins lye, equally/Grieved that they are not dead, and yet must dye./And as sin-burden'd soules from graves will creepe,/At the last day, some forth their cabbins peepe." There is the original of 'Will you still love me tomorrow?' in "Now thou hast lov'd me one whole day,/ Tomorrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?". and the snappy reply to his father-in-law's praise of the Sun as evidencing God's love when Donne, lying late in bed with his woman, chides the "Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?"

But Stubbs can write great prose himself. One of the best chapter openings I have ever read has to be that which starts chapter XVIII: "No one could quite agree how the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, came to kill Lord Zouch's gamekeeper."

There are other delights:

  • There is a rainbow by moonlight at sea
  • A lustrum is a period of five years
I simply loved this book. December 2013; 478 pages

Thursday, 12 December 2013

"Damn his blood" by Peter Moore

In 1806, the parson of the Worcestershire village of Oddingley was killed with a shotgun. The killer was seen and nearly apprehended on the spot but he escaped. Some of the local residents seemed strangely reluctant to pursue the murderer: the parson had been at violent odds with a number of the leading farmers of the town and there were rumours that they had been drinking to his damnation and offering money to someone who would shoot him.

The investigation was concluded in 1830.

This was a brilliantly told narration of these events. There is lots of background detail: we really get a feeling for the life of the village in pre-industrial England. The book would fascinate just for its window onto the contortions of English justice at this time: there were strict riles governing whether a confession was admissible in court; you could not be tried as an accessory to a crime until the principal malefactor had been convicted; there were coroner's courts, magistrates, assize judges and Grand Juries. The clues are dropped as delicately as in a whodunnit and the characters are clearly drawn.

And it was so atmospheric that I started being nervous of dark corners.

Excellent. December 2013; 322 pages.

I am still trying to decide whether this was better than Mr Briggs' hat or the account of the Ratcliffe Road murders mentioned in The Maul and the Pear Tree.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

"Harry the Valet" by Duncan Hamilton

Harry the Valet was a famous Victorian jewel thief who was celebrated for his daring exploits in which he swiped the jewels of the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland and the evil Maharajah of Alwar. Hornung may have based the Raffles books on him. Despite his humble Cockney beginnings (though his family was middle class and bourgeois) he posed as a debonair man about time, living the high life of champagne and Gaiety Girls and shooting in the season, funding it all from the proceeds of his crimes.

His modus operandi was to hang around railway stations watching the upper class travelling with the footmen and maids, wait until the maid put the jewel case down and turned her back, instantly pinch it and escape. This called for acute observation, dexterity (he learned his trade as a pickpocket), daring, and the ability to blend into the crowd both before and after the event. But it was a fundamentally simple M.O. and the wonder is that he got away with it for so long. Because he specialised in jewels he was very dependent on a network of fences and was lucky that none of them turned him in. In the end it was his recklessness in the aftermath of his most spectacular heist that earned him his first long prison spell; after that he was too old to truly be successful and too well-known to escape for long.

Although Hamilton repeatedly pads his book with tantalising glimpses of what will be revealed in the final chapter, which irritates me immensely, he is a great writer who has built a sometimes seedy life into a rattling good yarn.

Excellent. December 2013; 285 pages

Saturday, 7 December 2013

"The ministry of fear" by Graham Greene

This is a Greene thriller. As such, it has so much more depth than most thrillers. It is a world better than Donna Leon's The Jewels of Paradise.

You know that you are in the hands of a master: from the very first page we are off into typical Greene land: a world in which the familiar and the banal mingle with high drama. A church fete is set against the backdrop of the blitz. Buildings are bombed nightly and the very landscape of London changes day by day. The hero is drinking tea and eating cake when "the bomb burst half a mile away: you could feel the ground dent." Even the hero is an ordinary man until at the end of the first section of chapter two he says "I ought to tell you I am a murderer myself."

The book is set out like a film script: it contains some iconic scenes. We start with the fete and cut to Mr Rowe's sitting room which is bombed, a private detective agency, a seance, a second-hand bookshop, a funeral etc. These scenes are given fabulous flesh by the characters inhabiting them: the grubby private detective who specialises in divorce cases and is out of his depth with murder, the hunchback who tries to retrieve the cake, the medium with the deep voice, the array of weirdos at the seance. The scene that ends Book One, in which the hero and heroine are trapped in  a hotel room with the forces of evil closing in all around them, is truly sinister and classically cinematic.

Greene delights with his descriptions, with his characters, with his dialogue (always just a little uncomfortable, as if there are things that are not being said, as there always is in real dialogue) and with his language. I love the way he reinforces emotions from two different directions. For example, on the first page there is an "inevitable clergyman presiding over rather a timid game of chance": instantly one transfers the adjective to the man to see him better. Later on Rowe returns to the detective agency by a "roundabout route" because the tube is disrupted by the bombing of the night before; on the next page Rowe has to approach the detective agency "with circumspection" because there might be danger.

Rowe himself is a classic Greene character: an ordinary man who is haunted by his past. Pity is his weakness but at the same time this is why he is good: the forces of evil have ideals but no compassion: "One can't love humanity," Greene chastises them, "one can only love people." Rowe is made strong when he loses his memory. In the final reel, as he sails of into the sunset with his memory returned one knows that he can never be happy ever after. That would be a fairy tale and Greene does not deal in those.

That's why this book is so much more powerful than your average thriller. December 2013; 221 pages.

An even better (because more realistic) Greene thriller is A Gun for Sale. Stamboul Train is also well worth reading.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The jewels of paradise" by Donna Leon

Musicologist Caterina works for a shady lawyer and two dodgy cousins in a run down Foundation researching a baroque composer who may or may not have had a hand in the disappearance and probably murder of George I's wife's lover.

There are a number of nice features to this tale. Leon is a good writer if we are willing to overlook page 34 on which Caterina is "unwilling to admit to no motive higher than her own mounting curiosity"; surely this should be 'any'.  She certainly doesn't have the style and the moral ambiguity of Aurelio Zen, who is also a Venetian, and she doesn't have the sense of being immersed in the history of a Robert Goddard (eg Found WantingLong Time ComingBlood Count, or even the rather poor Fault Line). But she certainly packs in the detail, from the meals cooked and consumed by her heroine to the vaporetto number when travelling from one part of Venice to another to the careful description of the musical history and the process of historical research. There are a lot of moments which intrigue such as the size of the window in the little office (which plays no further part on the story) or the theft of the computer (which was presumably arranged for a purpose but plays no further part in the story). These things keep the reader going because you are expecting the game to be played properly in which the reader guesses the correct clues and avoids the red herrings (but they all seem to be red herrings).

None of this is enough to make up for the thumping disappointment of the climax. The denouement is preceded by a plot device so incredibly clich├ęd that it took my breath away. At the end one realises that nothing really happened and so what. And the intriguing details of the historical mystery are left high and dry with no solution offered at all.

Underwhelming. December 2013; 327 pages

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

"Merivel" by Rose Tremain

This tale is set in the latter years of the reign of Charles II. Sir Robert Merivel was ennobled by Charles II for agreeing to marry a woman Charles wanted as a mistress; his estate of Bidnold is funded by the King but must be ready at all times for the King's visits.

The book starts with Sir Robert, or Merivel as he prefers his friends to call him, in the company of his most faithful servant Will, who is now unsteady. Merivel knows that he can never discard loyal Will, for where would he go but the workhouse, although Will is becoming more and more a liability, and Merivel foresees that one day the tables will be turned and he will begin to nurse Will.

And so we begin to explore the character of the remarkable Merivel. His haberdasher parents died in a fire. He became a surgeon and then found favour with the King first by amusing him and then by becoming a professional cuckold. After incurring the displeasure of the King for trying to bed his own wife, Merivel fled to work with a group of Quakers who were administering to lunatics. Now he is restored to Bidnold but when his daughter announces her plans for going to Cornwall on a holiday with their neighbours, Merivel decides to travel to Versailles.

The plot is picaresque, meandering from episode to episode. Perhaps this is the point. It is like life: without purpose or direction but only a continuous muddle. He pays a treasured ring to rescue a captive bear from death but in the end the bear must still die after living in captivity. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Sir Robert's own life.

But what all the episodes reveal is the wonderful character of Sir Robert Merivel. For he is a weak mortal, marvellous in his frailty. He tries to do his best but is all too aware how often his good intentions are not enough. He is afraid of marriage because he is only too aware that he lets people down.

I have never read Rose Tremain before but I must find another book by her because I loved the way she portrayed a character and the readability of even such a wandering plot.

Packed with episodes, not all coherent, and dedicated to the study of a genuine man. December 2013; 341 pages

I have now read the first book about Robert Merivel, Restoration, which is reviewed here.

I have now also read The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain about a boy growing up in post WWII Switzerland. Such a different setting but such a similar style.