Somebody (Please) Say Something

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I wrote a blog in July 2014 suggesting that despite the plethora of news and print everywhere, nobody was really saying anything, at least nothing of interest, importance or even relating much to the truth. It was called Somebody Say Something, the title of an article written by John Lanchester ten years ago. He was pleading then for someone to say something (of some relevance). I recently listened to a recording of interviews with American Writers, a CD I’ve listened to perhaps fifty times. I never tire of it or anything to do with writers. They seem to me to be people who think about the world and have interesting things to say, not all of them of course, but any vaguely serious writers. Listening to American Writers I was struck by how relevant their opinions were and are. The CD reminded me of Lanchester’s article – if people weren’t saying much in 2004, they are saying much less now. There is plenty being said of course, but how much really addresses matters of substance?

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These interviews are from the 60, 70s and 80s and most of the writers are now dead. It doesn’t matter. Their words are as important today as they were then. Is anybody today saying anything of significance? Here is

 

William Burroughs in 1964:

Love plays little part in my mythology. I feel that what we call love is largely a fraud, a mixture of sentimentality and sex which has been systematically degraded and vulgarised by the virus power. The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in the creation of political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in western society. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity that we see on every street.

Toni Morrison in 1982

That business about lazy. People doing four jobs are supposedly lazy. I remember working in houses for white people. It’s very difficult if you move in somebody’s dirt not to recognise that they are both lazy and dirty. I am the one who is assumed to be both those things. If a proper economic study is done of this country, it must include the fact that they had 200 years of free labour, which made them a successful country in one eighth of the time they would normally have to spend.

Henry Miller in 1979

Sex has no pull anymore. Everybody is immersed in it like a hot bath. Therefore there is no ecstasy, no surprise, no enjoyment. It’s as if they were doing exercises.

Saul Bellow in 1977

They are intellectual professionals in the study of literature. Their purpose is to convert novels, poems, plays into subject matter. This is where the damage comes; they make discourse of it. It wasn’t originally there to make discourse of. Modern novels weren’t taught in the universities of the 19th century. Anyone who has received a decent education should be able to pick up a novel by themselves and read it.

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Mary McCarthy in 1960

I think the world is pretty terrible and somebody has to speak up. I think there is a general conspiracy of silence about what goes on. All the stuff that’s piped in, including probably this programme with me on it, that daily cant that pours from the radio, the newspapers, advertising, education and everybody simply endures it. Somebody should get up and just shut it off.

Eudora Welty in 1985

Something has been troubling me a lot when I go round and talk to students. It is that very intelligent people don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction and they don’t assume there is any.

Arthur Miller in 1968

The reality was depression. The reality was the whole thing coming down in a heap of wood and cinders. What happens when everybody has a refrigerator? What happens when everybody has a car? It’s got to end.

Gore Vidal in 1978

With politics and religion, one is the mirror of the other and there is no answer in either case.


Except for Toni Morrison, these writers are now dead. None would be pleased with the way society has gone. If Mary McCarthy thought there was too much daily cant then, her head would explode now. Why must we be taught literature? We can teach ourselves and enjoy it ourselves. The virus power attempts more and more to curtail inner freedoms. To Eudora Welty I would point out that those students were certainly NOT ‘very intelligent people’. She was being far too polite. Arthur Miller knew in 1949 that it all has to end – we’re much closer now. Sex is merely an advertising scam.

This is just a small sample of what the writers had to say about their world. I can thoroughly recommend the CD to anyone interested (British Library: The Spoken Word archive). They also recorded a British Writers CD which is almost as good, including JB Priestly, William Golding and many others.

I shall continue to read biographies and listen to recordings of writers. They seem to me to be the only people recognising what is actually happening. Some care, some don’t. Some would like to change the world, others think it unchangeable or they would change a small part of it, usually their own tiny part of it. No matter, through the ages, from Homer to Dickens and beyond, they all have something to say. They lead interesting lives and find different ways of communicating their ideas, as did Hunter S Thompson in The Rum Diary: escaping from the Luce empire with its ‘slick drivers and jingo parrots’ spreading  ‘like a piss puddle’ to Puerto Rico where a tourist ship arrives ‘from somewhere in the middle of America, some flat little town’ with another ‘fearsomely alike’ group, consisting of ‘shapeless women in wool bathing suits and dull-eyed men with hairless legs who should never have been allowed to leave their local Elks Club.’

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Who says stuff like that anymore?

 

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Reviewing books….

booksI haven’t written anything for a while, not because I lack the desire, but because there are so many ideas bouncing around that I’ve failed to keep hold of a single line of thought long enough to turn it into words. Frustrating, although at least I don’t live with a dull mind. Anyway, one theme keeps returning; it’s here again today, so I’m going to write about it before people forget I exist: A book I published in 2012, two other books and the reviews they received.

Caliente, an account of my time in Cuba has sold around one thousand copies, I haven’t kept track, and perhaps the same again in electronic format. I occasionally receive small boosts to my bank account due to people, I assume worldwide, buying it. It started as a diary, then when people liked bits and pieces, over many years it became a book. The story at the time seemed to me so alive and interesting that I had to tell it. With much help from a friend, I manfully did my best to promote it, but without a massive or even moderate publicity budget (it was truly tiny), I stood little chance of achieving big sales.

I still get emails from people who read and enjoyed Caliente, mostly travellers. At the beginning, when it was published, I got eight or so positive reviews on Amazon from friends, the other reviews, good or bad, are from genuine readers that I don’t know. I suppose everybody, even established authors, must get friends to review their books, and one thing one must always do on Amazon is try to separate the friendly from the genuine.

After a year I abandoned the publicity trail and started a novel. I have finished my novel twice and am now beginning a third rewrite which will be much longer. If I do finish it, it will almost certainly not sell. I don’t care. Some success would be good but it isn’t essential. I’m proud of Caliente and I will be proud of my novel. I appreciate the sales of Caliente and I like getting appreciative emails. I am not bitter in the slightest, but I do wonder about the reviewing process in Britain (I assume it’s the same in the USA).

In making my point I’ve chosen two books that can take a little criticism. Both have been fantastically reviewed and achieved significant sales: The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012) and In The Light Of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman (2014). The Yellow Birds is written by a veteran of the Gulf War, so has immediate kudos which people will naturally not easily criticise. On Amazon it has dozens of reviews from famous authors, actors, broadcasters and newspapers; inside its covers are printed a choice of the best reviews. Hilary Mantel (whom I admire) described it as ‘A masterpiece of war literature and a classic’; Damien Lewis, star of Homeland, thought it ‘poetic and devastating’. It won The Guardian First Book Award.

I bought the book based on the reviews, surely so many couldn’t be wrong. I must be appallingly out-of-step. I did not like the book at all. Not only did I not like it, I found hardly a page or sentence which moved me, let alone interested me. I was bored. I thought the book was badly written, had no real purpose and never came alive at any stage. I’ve read plenty of war literature, never coming across anything as bad as this. I accept that this was written by a serving soldier, and I have no experience of war, but that does not mean that the soldier can write. I believe that The Yellow Birds is a bad book.

In The Light Of What We Know supposedly ‘wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash’. James Wood thought it ‘astonishingly achieved…ideas and provocations abound on every page’; Joyce Carol Oates compared it to Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby and the writers Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, John le Carre and Thomas Mann. At 554 pages, as opposed to The Yellow Birds’ 226, this was very hard going. Again, I read it because of the reviews. Again, I found almost nothing of interest. This is not to say that Rahman may not write a good novel in the future, but this is not it; it is an obvious first novel, with too much crammed into it and no recognisable structure to hold it all. To me, another bad book.

I am still mystified by the marvellous reviews for these books. I do not believe I am over critical or unreasonable. I am quite widely read, reading anything from Shakespeare to detective novels. I fully accept that books like Fifty Shades of Grey get published and people like them. But they do not pretend to be, or get treated as, literature. They are harmless, not to my taste, but harmless. Was The Yellow Birds taken so seriously because it was written by a serving soldier? I don’t think so; there are many better books on the subject that get much closer to the truth. Did the author merely know the right people, who spread the word? I really don’t know. In The Light Of What We Know was crammed full of ideas which ultimately went nowhere in very boring fashion. How on earth did it gain such reviews?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with me. Have any of you read these books? Am I so out-of-touch? Or is there a strange system of reviewing, where a book is chosen and the same people choose to say wonderful things about it? The same books and authors seem to get reviewed by the same people, ad nauseam. Not all the books are bad, of course, but every week something awful is praised to the heavens. I repeat, I am not bitter, merely mystified.

Just to add balance, I would like to say that I’ve recently read: A True Story Based on Lies and Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Jimfish by Christopher Hope, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Trespass by D.J. Taylor, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan (among others) and thoroughly enjoyed them all, for very different reasons, gaining a different kind of pleasure from each.

They were simply good stories, well-told.

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Janet Suzman Skewers the Oxfordians

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I have just finished an interesting book by Janet Suzman, a fine Shakespearean actress. She played one of the best Cleopatras I’ve seen in 1974 and produced and directed a brilliant Othello in Johannesburg in 1987. The book, Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama, deals primarily with women and acting, a topic I will return to later. But here I’ll just reference her first chapter, A Rogue Prologue: A heartfelt plea for a bit of common sense. The chapter deals with those who believe the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays and although Suzman is very reluctant to address the topic, she writes:

Obfuscations shot through with cant, piffle and deception seems to me a poor subject for deep analysis. Furthermore to waste good millions on a lousy film to defend the indefensible seems both profligate and time-wasting. Even spending my time on this counter-blast is irritating. But I find myself wanting to defend the man from Stratford here; the one person in the universe who doesn’t need my defence. But there you go, he’s got it.

She says that the fact that Oxford lived almost concurrently with Shakespeare, had travelled, had some connections and ‘wrote a few poems of uneven quality’ seems to have ‘addled the brains’ of the Oxfordians.

For your Oxfordian, it’s impossible for a writer to conjure up another world in the imagination, he has to have been there, which for a start puts the entire range of science fiction into the rubbish bin. The notion that you can’t write about anything until you have-been-there-done-that is just silly.

Later she writes:

Because you have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine the Earl of Oxford secretly wrote thirty seven plays performed and printed over a quarter of a century without being found out. And you have to be a snob if you hate it that the greatest poet the world has ever produced was born into the humble alder-manic classes of a provincial town.

Janet Suzman admits she is no academic. All the better for that. She has just spent a lifetime among actors, theatre companies and the works of Shakespeare. And guess what? Actors, directors – the whole crew – talk to each other.

Has it never occurred to this bunch of dreamers how such a daft plot might work in a busy theatre company? No whispers and sniggers about such a plonking modus operandi, a deception stretching over twenty-five years? Did this doltish William of theirs never crow in his cups about his secret benefactor and his growing wealth? Did the company never notice how illiterate Will had suddenly turned scribe, brandishing inky cue-sheets under their noses, scribbly fingers freshly stained? Did no one ever mark how rewrites – for rewrites there surely were – happened only after William had returned from a loo-break?

I was pleased that she mentioned the most obvious reason the Earl of Oxford did not write the plays: the fact that he died in 1604.

Not to mention that the earl dies in 1604 and Shakespeare lasts until 1616, but hey, no worries, the late plays secretly mature in the company cellar like bottles of vintage claret, to be broached one by one with a flourish when a new play is required. In the silly film a pile of the late plays are tremblingly handed by the dying earl to Ben Jonson for safekeeping. Ben then manages to hide them in a tin trunk beneath the stage. For nine years those plays lie safe, undiscovered by prying prop hands. Then the terrible Globe fire of 1613 happens, and lo! – they are rescued by a panic-stricken Ben.

One can almost hear Suzman chuckling as she writes, fed up with (yet again) having to rescue Shakespeare from the idiot Oxfordians, but nevertheless quite enjoying destroying their case with accuracy and humour. I only have space for a few of her arguments here, but she picks off the Oxfordian arguments one by one in her (highly recommended) book. The many people who knew Shakespeare?

For heaven’s sake – we have at least a dozen known contemporaries of his who knew him well and who mention him both as an author and an actor, a continuous series of traces left from him from 1592 until his death in 1616.

She supplies several (much deserved) digs at the ‘infuriating circumstantial wooliness of the Oxfordians.’

Not only a dreadful snobbery pervades their view, but a limiting literalness that is hard to fathom, especially as some of the more famous adherents have perfectly respectable imaginations of their own. Remember that not a single trace is discernible in the Oxfordian paper-chase. It’s all smoke and snobbery.

smokeShe has little sympathy or feeling for Oxford, although she refrains from mentioning that he lived beyond his means, owed everybody money and cruelly murdered one of his servants.

The poor Earl of Oxford’s life, such as we know it, is way too complicated, not to mention too short, to have fitted into the sneaky diurnal disguise devised for him. Writing, directing and acting in a slew of your own plays, in a company of performers who knew you well, in a town abuzz with gossip and rivalry, for a quarter of a century is really more than enough for any one man to have accomplished. To have somehow feigned all this, God knows how, without being rumbled, simply beggars belief.

She signs off with

Oxford did not write the plays. William Shakespeare of Stratford is the man who knows the quiet industry of creation and the hurly-burly of staging it. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise we are truly away with leprechauns.

Leprechauns maybe. I would be less polite. To the Tower with all of them.

Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama

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Who’s happy?

masks-001I began this blog a week ago, intending to write about happiness and how, generally, I believe the upper-classes to be less happy than the lower. I thought I had loads of quotes to use: stuff read over the years – but finding them was a different matter; buried in hundreds of books. However, after nearly abandoning the idea through lack of material, I decided to press on anyway.

A controversial theory perhaps but interesting all the same. Of course the classes as I imagine them mainly existed in the past, nevertheless, there are probably three groups of people everywhere: those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top. There are of course major differences in ambition among these categories, some being more-or-less happy where they are, while others’ aspirations and desires know no bounds.

I generalise shamelessly, but I have never understood sentiments such as Vita Sackville-West’s, below:

No thinking man can be happy, all that we can hope for is to get through life with as much suppression of misery as possible.”

I’m sure Sackville-West was immensely talented. I don’t know. I haven’t read her. The above quote is from West’s novel, The Easter Party, quoted in a review of the latest biography of West in the Spectator, written by Mary Keen. She preceded the quote with a comment on Sissinghurst and the gardens created by West, and on which were based her Observer gardening columns. She writes:

Isn’t that what imaginative people do? Make somewhere they can call their own world? Reality, both of the real and of the modern, manufactured sort, is often pretty unbearable and most of us wear masks and adopt strategies for dealing with life in whatever way we can.

Keen goes on to quote Myles Hildyard, who questioned in his letters the right of those who expect to be happy.

So, we have:

…as much suppression of misery as possible’

Reality…is pretty unbearable’

and Hildyard questions those who

expect to be happy’.

All three statements are alien to me. I can’t speak for others, because people are rarely honest about this, but I have been mainly happy throughout my life, at worst content and occasionally miserable. I have no idea why West had to suppress misery. She was well-born, wanted for nothing, lived in splendid surroundings, had a successful career as an artist and two lovely children. What was there to be miserable about?

Now, I do not hide from reality. I am well aware of all the suffering in the world, but thankfully it hasn’t reached me. The unnecessary suffering of others can haunt and anger me; it does not affect my own happiness though – why should it? Making oneself miserable about the suffering of others does no good to the sufferers and no good to oneself. I think in many cases it is merely an excuse to be miserable. I am amazed at the number of young people I meet who declare life a trial, who didn’t ask to be here and don’t appreciate that life is a gift. To be enjoyed. You are here once for a comparatively short time. Be happy.

As you may have gathered, I am working-class.

I suppose what Sackville-West is suggesting is that no thinking person can be happy because the very act of thinking reveals how horrible the world is. But the world isn’t horrible, some human beings are. I don’t see that as a reason to be miserable, especially one as privileged as Vita Sackville-West. It seems to me that many of her class were, and are, just plain miserable. A misery, through their actions, they often end up inflicting on the rest of us, who are not miserable.

Steven King is most certainly working class, straight-talking, no-nonsense and honest. Norman Mailer was always a happy soul, and he was far from well-born. He was at home in – and wrote about – all levels of society. Chekov was descended from peasants, and wrote about them honestly. Tolstoy wanted to be a peasant, learnt their ways but couldn’t be one; he wrote about them sentimentally, but his motives and his heart were in the right place. Graham Greene was happy, although he said he made himself sad by doing too much with his life. Not a writer, but a genius just the same, Charlie Chaplin was born poor, but still thought:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Of course there is another side, many examples will prove me wrong. Ernest Hemingway said:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

I don’t agree with him. Hemingway was never a happy man and projected his feelings on to others. Kafka, born into the middle-classes, was just plain miserable (and unreadable, in my opinion):

People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair.

Beyond repair; good-grief. I’m glad I never met him.

I believe that if you’ve never struggled to pay a bill, never wondered where the next penny is coming from, never been close to homelessness through no fault of your own, then you don’t really fully understand life. Many of the rich and well-off consider the poor to be to blame for their own predicament. This is an easy way to think (or not think); some of the poor are to blame, many lack great ambition (no sin), most are just not greedy, and the majority are not to blame for where they happen to be. They were born there. As were most of the rich. Being born with money means (through no fault of your own) you never have to really deal with life. And I’m not sure you really know happiness either.

Most of the poor I have met are a damn sight happier than the rich. Markedly so. Especially in India, Bali and Cuba, to name just a few of the places I have experience of. Cuba, where 90% of the people are very poor, has the happiest people I’ve ever met. I believe the poor, or not rich more accurately, are happier because, as Epictetus put it:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And Aristotle:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

Charles Darwin, who understood much, and was not of the poor said:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

Our institutions cause not only poverty but people in body bags. Of this, Barbara Bush said:

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

This does show how some people deal with reality. They ignore it. I’m not at all sure that Bush has a beautiful mind, but she believes that she has, and the fact that her son caused those body bags to be used does not seem to trouble her, or indeed even occur to her. This is a fine example of how someone, born to riches, lives in a sort of dream-world, a strange world that doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of very rich, stupid people.

Sadly, I have generalised and simplified outrageously, but at least I have raised a subject for discussion. I will end on a positive note, from perhaps the greatest optimist of all time, Anne Frank, whose happiness in the most horrible of circumstances is an example I wish everybody would follow:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.

Whoever is happy will make others happy.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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Undisturbed Reading…

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I returned from a three week trip to Cuba nine weeks back. I haven’t worked since and won’t start again until October. My working year gets shorter. Money is sometimes a problem, but I’ve enjoyed the time off. While in Havana, I read: A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle 1805-1915 by Miranda Seymour (The circle here included Hart Crane, H.G. Wells, Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Wharton and James’s brother William); Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass; Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin; Conversations with Marilyn [Monroe] by W.J. Weatherby and You Talkin’ to Me: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith.

Quite a heavy selection, now I look at it, but I enjoyed every one. Possibly I wouldn’t have read all of those books at home – too distracted, but in Cuba I can read for hours undisturbed and with good concentration.

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In the nine weeks I’ve been home I’ve read: Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin; The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie Francoise Allain; Defying Hitler, a memoir by Sebastian Haffner; Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (the horrific tale of the chemical spill) by Dominique Lapierre & Javier Moro; Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle; Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies; The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook and Thirst by Kerry Hudson.

They appear, on reflection, quite heavy too, but they weren’t. And it’s taken me nine weeks to read them, mostly in bed; during the day there was little concentrated reading, being easily distracted.

I also noticed from one of my recent posts that I said I’d never read William Faulkner. The reason I’d never tried was just a few comments I’d read over the years. I remember Bill Bryson, ages ago, writing about a passage being three pages long “which would constitute one sentence for William Faulkner”; that and a few other remarks coloured my opinion of him. But having never read Faulkner, I became curious and, after all, he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

I decided to investigate Faulkner. I looked through his books on Amazon and settled on Light in August. The Spectator said that it:

Burns throughout with a fierce indignation against cruelty, stupidity and prejudice – a great book”

A comment from a reader said;

This a Faulkner’s major work which could be considered as one of the best American novels of the 1930s. This book represents the best introduction to Faulkner’s novels and to the history of the deep South. Anyone interested in American literature should read it.”

It has 384 pages. Surely ideal as an introduction to Faulkner. I enjoyed the first few chapters but found the style difficult. Faulkner describes everything, tells you everything. It is written in, what for the time, was a modernistic style. It is impressionistic. The following passage is fairly typical:

Then a cold hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing hard away like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and despair and the hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too. With the very blast of it he seems to feel himself rush back and empty again, without anything in him now which had not been there two weeks ago, before he ever saw her. The desire of this moment is more than desire; it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man’s course when he entered the woods.

Beautiful writing. But essentially the man changes direction; that’s about all I wanted to know. Perhaps that makes me a moron; perhaps I have a short attention span, except there comes a stage where I just want to get on with the story – it seemed so slow, so stodgy. It is wonderfully written, but the whole book is like that: every action, every thought, everything surrounding that action and thought is described in detail. It was too much. I waited and waited for the story to move. I tried. I read 200 pages. I don’t mind that kind of description in moderation, but paragraph after paragraph, page after page – and I was never entirely sure what was going on. So I gave up. I don’t like abandoning books; I usually give a book ten to fifty pages; I really tried with this one. Ultimately I didn’t care.

Maybe I am a moron. If that is a good introduction to Faulkner, I won’t be reading any more. A wonderful writer. But not for me.

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This post would be too long for me to discuss the above books in any detail, assuming anybody wants me to. Although I would recommend them all, I would like to praise a few unreservedly. I enjoyed Thirst. Kerry Hudson writes with great insight about Alena, a girl in trouble, but I didn’t care for the male character – a shame. Hudson though is a good writer. She writes about ordinary people and their interesting and, in this case, dangerous lives. She is also genuinely working class. Not enough of those writers around (see Rod Liddle) and I’ll watch out for anything else she writes.

Peter Brook is always interesting. He writes clear prose and thinks originally. He writes very slim volumes though. This one I read in an hour-and-a-half, and I’m a slow reader. Stiff at £12.99, full-price. All his books seem to be that way. Recommended though.

Strong recommendations for:

Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin.

I knew nothing about Hannah Arendt but found myself agreeing with everything she said and everything she thought. I liked the way she lived her life, her courage and her stubbornness. I disliked Martin Heidegger. Stranger from Abroad is a superb read. I’d never heard of Daniel Maier-Katkin. He’s an academic, but also a good writer and meticulously fair-minded.

Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle

Rod Liddle’s book is a bit of a rant, but all the better for it. He says things most people haven’t the courage to say and, for me, need saying. Our society has become rather silly and unfair. He says so, says why and names the guilty. Selfish Whining Monkeys indeed.

Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies.

Cracked is an exposure of the psychiatric industry; and it is an industry. It also reveals how drug companies are prescribing dangerous drugs worldwide, doing most of the published research themselves while burying negative reports. Very disturbing.

Despite appearances, all the above are easy reads with the exception of Light in August (for me). You Talkin’ to Me can be hard-going too.

Hope you weren’t bored.

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Writing Heroes – Ingrid Betancourt

book-001I read a book a few years ago called Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt. I don’t remember much of the book, only impressions. One event in the book stayed with me though. I’ll never forget it. I’ll come to that later.

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Betancourt, forty one in 2002, and a presidential candidate, was abducted by FARC, a guerrilla organisation in Colombia. She had given up a life of comfort and safety to become a political leader. She spent six-and-a-half-years in the depths of the jungle, walked hundreds of miles, often chained, day and night. She tried to escape several times, often succeeding, only to be recaptured.

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I still have my impressions from the book. FARC were mostly stupid and brutal; they recruited from the very poorest and brainwashed them into hating their captors – very basic class warfare. The captors were moved often, always being hundreds of miles from safety. Any escape involved negotiating almost impossible, dangerous terrain through the jungle. She made friends and enemies along the way.

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She struck me as being a very determined, brave woman. There were times when she made herself unpopular with her fellow captors. I’m not sure why, although I can imagine she could be a dominant personality, constantly persuading her co-captors to action rather than lethargy and safety-first – a wait-and-see attitude.

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She and all the captives suffered a great deal. The FARC guerrillas were generally unintelligent and spiteful, not glamorous at all, and politically indoctrinated against any independent thought, even if they were capable of it. Few of them could read or write. There were decent people among them, but not many – much the same as society, I suppose.

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The book is a great read. I’m not sure how popular it became (it was published in 2010), but it certainly deserved popularity. Betancourt’s tells a story of suffering, courage and eventually triumph that is beyond the imagining of anybody who has not been in her situation.

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The event I referred to earlier occurred about half-way through the book. There were many captives of many nationalities; there was often tension between them: petty jealousies, getting upset over silly things, not knowing who to trust. According to Betancourt, she remained above it all, although I’m sure she could be forceful. Earlier one of the female captives had become pregnant by one of the guerrillas. She had escaped earlier with Betancourt but, as always, they had been re-captured. She was a strange woman. At the time of this incident the prisoners did not even know where she was; she had been taken away, presumably for medical treatment.

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One day some of the captors insisted that Betancourt be moved from their compound. It was sheer nastiness. I’m not sure why they behaved like that. Perhaps they objected to her positivity – I don’t know. There was constant bickering. She was moved to another area of the camp, the chicken run, where she found the pregnant woman, eight months gone, living alone. Later another captive joined them, also banished for sticking up for her.

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They lived quite well. The pregnant woman wanted Betancourt to be the baby’s godmother; the other captive loved the absence of tension away from the main compound,

“I can’t bear the thought of going back to that prison”

he said. Echoing his fear, a guard arrived:
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Your fellow prisoners have been complaining because one of the guards told them that you have better living conditions than they do. They want you back.
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Betancourt says that she felt she was entering the gates of hell when she was returned to the main compound.

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“You didn’t stay away long” hissed one of her companions. “I’m sure you missed us” replied Betancourt’s male friend, returned also, “maybe it was you who insisted we come back”. A man sniggered:

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Well, we too have some influence.

This was by far the most shocking incident of the book for me. Many awful things happened during the prisoners’ six-and-a-half years of captivity. None of us knows how we would react to the terrible and traumatic experiences without actually having to go through it. But to banish someone from the main compound is perhaps just silly. To then hear that they might be better off and insist that they be brought back defies belief. It is the height of malicious jealousy.

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I told a few people of the incident after reading it. The most popular response was “Well, we don’t know how we would react in those circumstances.” That’s true. There are many incidents in the book where I don’t know how I would react. I don’t know if I would have the courage to try to escape. I don’t know what attitude I would take to my captors, to my fellow prisoners. I would like to think that I would remain positive and make the best of whatever happened. But we just don’t know until we have suffered the same exhaustion, pain and trauma that all the captives did.

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But one thing I’m sure of. If Betancourt was moved and found herself better off, I’d merely have thought “Good luck to her”. To insist she be returned was madness, nothing to do with their general circumstances of captivity. It was spiteful, stupid, jealous and petty.

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I won’t reveal the nationality of the people who insisted she be returned. That would be unfair. There were three main culprits. In the event it was a minor incident for Betancourt, who was eventually rescued by the Colombian military. I’m sure that sort of captivity would bring out the worst in all of us, perhaps the best too. Hopefully, we will never know.

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One thing I’m sure of though: I would not have banished Betancourt in the first place, and I most definitely would not have insisted she be returned because I merely suspected that she might be happier wherever she was. Unbelievable.

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What do you think?

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How to write…

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer, sort of. Apparently my junior school teacher told my mother that my subject would be English. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anything. I was far too busy playing truant, misbehaving and generally having a good time. I took an interest in books in my late teens, but was still far too lazy and preoccupied to get seriously into literature. I loved foreign holidays because I’d take a dozen books with me and read them all. To me that was what holidays were for. At home I was too busy drinking, chasing girls, taking drugs and being bad, to read. I probably read as much during one holiday as I did during a whole year at home. I wanted to read; I bought loads of books – I loved them – I just didn’t read many of them.

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Times have slowly changed. Now I read a lot, have done for many years, but I still allow myself to be distracted by TV and the Internet. I write a lot too. I have actually written all my life, jotting down ideas, starting short stories, even novels, but never really sustaining anything the way real writers do. Only age has made me slow down and write and I’ve become fairly good at it: one published memoir and a novel just submitted. But it took me forever to do it. The memoir was the result of ten years’ work, on-and-off; the novel has taken me a year, although it was roughly complete in a couple of months.

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And when you come to write: How do you write? I must have read a hundred books on writing, but I’m not sure I’ve taken one bit of advice. I still sit down and write the way I always do, always have done, with some learning on the way that has been absorbed rather than learned. A sort of osmosis. And that osmosis, the absorption has come about through reading and thinking about what I’ve read, all the time; even in those lazy early days I realise that I was reading and writing and thinking and absorbing, watching people, thinking about it, storing it. And I love books. I love stories.

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But how do you write? Can it be taught? I think the churning out of stories: vampire stories, love stories, detective stories and all the other variations can be taught, especially in the techno-age. I think real writers are born, not taught: Tolstoy, Balzac, Shakespeare, Steinbeck – they wrote because they couldn’t help it, and they don’t get forgotten. They are with us always. They told great stories.

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In How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely wrote:

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But as I walked out through the shelves, I looked at the work of my colleagues. There was Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls – all those pseudo-epic titles with women dying in the rain, bullfights, and Italian vistas. He knew the deal. He knew doomed Mediterranean romances would pay for Key West beach view and a new fishing boat. And Fitzgerald, who’d tricked the eye with an Ivy League pedigree and convinced the world that a rich guy who threw parties was some kind of metaphor. There was Faulkner, a southern huckster in the Bill Clinton mould, who suckered you in with his honey voice and tales of landscapes soaked in tragedy.

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Is this true? The great novelist as con-artist? It made me think. I like Hemingway’s short stories. I loved The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, but found it mostly awful when I returned to it recently. I didn’t like a Farewell to Arms; it read like the script to a very bad ‘B’ movie. I liked The Great Gatsby, but not that much. It’s OK, but I’ve never understood its reputation. I’ve never read Faulkner. Con-artists? Hely continues:

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It went on back to Homer, who’d written stories so ridiculous, so full of special effects and monsters and busty, half-divine sluts that Hollywood would be ashamed to make them. And he’d pulled it off! He’s punched it up with rosy -fingered dawn and the sickeningly cloying scene of Prium begging for his son’s body. That blind old trickster probably got more chicks (or dudes) than Pericles.

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On through Dickens, with his pleading orphans and sweetheart aunts; Mark Twain, with his little cherub-faced rascals and mock rural slang; James Joyce with his whisky-soaked-stage-Irish blarney – they were all con-artists. They weren’t any better than the guys who write beer commercials or sell car insurance over the phone. They just had a different angle.

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Now, Dely is writing tongue-in-cheek here (I hope), but is there any truth in what he says? I’ve read very little Homer (I find it difficult), but I like Dickens and Mark Twain a lot. James Joyce’s early stories were great but then he lost me – I’ve tried Ulysses several times and it always defeats me. But no better than the guys who write commercials?

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Norman Mailer wrote that

‘It’s as hard to learn to write as to play the piano’.

It is. Even for the jobbing writer who turns out average stuff. Sitting down in front of a blank page is a real challenge, it can be daunting, and it was just as hard for Joyce and Hemingway. Being a writer is not easy. Take this from someone who invents fresh avoidance tactics every day. I would do anything to avoid writing. Con-artists? I don’t think so. Lucky, in a few cases, maybe, shysters, no.

But back to how to write. For all the books I’ve read on writing, I think I’ve only picked up a few rules, and I probably knew them anyway. One of them is Elmore Leonard’s favourite rule: Do not use adverbs: ‘said’ with the name of the speaker at the end of a piece of dialogue is enough, and only occasionally to identify the speaker. If I pick up a book in a shop and read ‘John said hopefully’ or ‘sadly’ or ‘doubtfully’ or whatever, I put the book straight back on the shelf. The reader does not need to be told. They can and want to figure it out for themselves. If the writing is good enough the reader will know how the words are spoken or they will work out their own version. Don’t tell them.

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Don’t tell the reader how your characters are feeling.

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Chekhov this time:

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Shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge from their actions. The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.

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Let your readers judge character and feeling. Let them do the work. That’s half the pleasure of reading. I remember when I wrote my memoir, describing a policeman (who had caused me a lot of trouble) skidding away from a police station on his motorbike, leaving me standing in a cloud of dust. A woman who later read the account said she liked the description. Why? Because you didn’t say how it made you feel.

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Sis Field writes screenplays but his advice applies to any writer of fiction:

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Without conflict there no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action. Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.

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Action is not necessarily people fighting or shooting or special effects. It can be a knowing smile or the way someone smokes a cigarette. Elia Kazan, someone else who worked with the screen, said

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‘It’s twenty times better if violence is suggested rather than if you’re explicit. What you imagine is much more frightening than what is seen.’

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The same applies to writing novels. Take your reader into another world, tell them a story, but let them imagine the most important aspects of it.

Those are the only things I’ve picked up on from all those books on writing, and I think I knew them already. I absorbed what made good writing from the hundreds of good books I’ve read. And of course you need a modicum of talent. And the most important rule of all?

Work hard. Really hard. The aspect that I find the most difficult.

As G.K. Chesterton said, there is only one way:

Apply the seat of the pants to the chair and don’t get up until it’s finished.

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Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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Happy Idleness

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Idleness is a word that encompasses a great deal of human activity. I suppose in today’s society it is a dirty word. We’re all supposed to be rushing around being proactive, inspiring change, making things happen – why we should do that is rarely questioned. Idleness is associated with those on benefits, people who don’t want to work, loafers, scroungers, drains on society.

But I don’t think of idleness as meaning that. Idleness can merely mean stopping to think. How many people actually stop to think about anything, free from the distractions of TV, the Internet, their phones, games – the constant babble of civilisation?

 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the essay An Apology For Idlers in 1876. He could not imagine the ways one can be idle today; just the welfare state and technology would have been unimaginable to him. But his points remain as true today as they were then; many, many things have changed, some things remain the same.

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Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formalities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

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Ah, the mad pursuit of money for its own sake. I read today that Tony Blair insists that he is ONLY worth twenty million, not the one hundred million that some claim. Why does he want that much? What will he do with it? Apart from other obvious acts of his, isn’t it a little disturbing that a man who chases after money with such enthusiasm ran the country for ten years? Do the people who run after more and more money all their lives ever stop to think: What did I do with my life? Well, Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East peace envoy’. But that’s a joke, isn’t it?

Stevenson again:

Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.

He continues:

While others (at school) are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week is out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or so to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

I learnt very little at school. My education began while I was playing truant, but mostly after I left. I chose what I needed to learn. I don’t think anybody does learn much at school, apart from perhaps how to read and write, if they didn’t know how already. Most real learning comes from life. An uneducated person can be very wise, an educated person very stupid. But there is no place for the wise today.

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I suppose the best universities and some private schools provide something better for people. But our government was, and is, full of these people: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al – born privileged, they seem to be magnificently ignorant, have worked nowhere, apart from perhaps PR or the Law, have never fought, have never had to worry about paying a bill. No knowledge of history (unimportant), can’t do simple multiplication, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people – hardly a good advertisement for the education which produced them.

Stevenson continues:

Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the businessman some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has another and more important quality than these. I mean wisdom. He will have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he finds no out-of-the-way truths, he identifies himself with no very burning falsehood.

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Politicians, leaders generally (not all), never stop to think; they are too busy. As are many in the mad rush for money, the only true gauge of worth today:

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Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

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They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

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Stevenson’s essay reminds me of my travels. The sheer happiness and joy of living one often witnesses in poor countries. I can vouch for the happiness of children in Cuba, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. I have read about the amazing resilience of the untouchables in Bangladesh and Bhopal. I am not suggesting that we should copy their economies and become poor, but we have lost something here. Something is very wrong with our lives.

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There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. The other day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with so jolly an air that he set everyone he passed into a good humour. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.

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I’ll remember this on my next trip to Cuba, a poor country that has much wrong with it. But one of those wrongs is not the happiness of the children (or most of the adults, come to that). I have heard young Cubans crying very few times in years of visiting and staying (they laugh all the time). It is impossible in England to visit a supermarket or a cafe without hearing some spoilt child screaming its head off, its parents having no idea what to do with it, apart from perhaps buy it something else. The children have no shame; they don’t care who they disturb or who sees them. I would never have cried in front of other people when I was a child. I rarely cried at all. Today there are dozens of them, every day, everywhere.

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But back to idling and a last warning from Stevenson:

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They have dwarfed and narrowed their souls by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material amusement, and not one thought to rub together with another, while they wait for the train. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

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A marvellous essay, as true now as when it was written, 138 years ago.

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Still Reading in Bed…

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Below are two paragraphs from my December blog, Reading in Bed. I return, reluctantly, to it now.

Julian Barnes’ Booker winning novel is a beautiful object; I read it over a few nights, entirely from a prone, on my back, position. And it is not a practical object. For a very simple and infuriating reason: its inner margins are too narrow. The book requires an uncomfortable and impractical two hands to be able to see the whole of the text; in other words, without forcing the book wide open with two hands the inner text on both pages will disappear into the fold of the book; one is constantly tilting the book this way and that to read the end of the sentences on the left-hand page and their beginning on the right hand page. This is unusual with hardback books, but this is a small book.

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Although this fault is most noticeable in bed – I suppose publishers will protest that books are not designed to be read in bed (if not, they should be) – it is almost as annoying when reading anywhere in any way. If, like me, you love books as ‘physical’ objects then you will resent having to practically break their backs to read the central text. Apart from the discomfort and the detraction of pleasure, you are damaging the book, shortening its life – the act of doing this, bending the two halves of a paperback hard against its spine makes me angry; apart from the inconvenience which has been added to what should be a pleasure (depending on the book), I resent having to treat a book this way. It should never be necessary.

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When I wrote that I had also intended to include a survey of the books I owned: note the good ones and the bad ones, unmask the guilty publishers and provide some kind of guide. It proved too time-consuming and difficult and there was no consistency. The same publishers would provide both the readable and the unreadable. I was slightly disappointed that there was no pattern, nothing to complain about (except generally) to anyone.

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However I’ve recently bought two books that confirm absolutely the faults that I mention. So I’ll report on them. Perhaps others could do the same. Maybe a pattern will emerge.

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A while ago I purchased Far From The Tree from Amazon. Written by Andrew Solomon, it is about parents, children and the search for identity. The reviews were spectacular, far too many good reviews for them to have been an old-pals-act. It’s the sort of book I cannot resist, particularly as I believe there are very few decent books being published, or at least widely publicised.

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But when it arrived from Amazon, I first thought of returning it, then slotted it into my shelves, probably never to be read. It will be in a charity shop within the year. Why? 958 pages have been crammed into a too small paperback. The book measures 8.5” x 5.3” x 2” (215 x 135 x 50); its type is fairly small, but not quite too small with fairly narrow line spacing. But that is not the main problem. The problem is the inner margins and flexibility. The inner margins are never wider than a half inch and the book is not flexible enough to open flat, making it difficult at any time to view a whole page in comfort. In my view it would be impossible to read in bed; I won’t even try. As much type as possible has been squeezed into the smallest possible space. The book is published by Vintage; it is printed by Clays Ltd of St Ives, although I assume printers just follow instructions. I consider the book a useless object: Price – £11.99.

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Now, I know putting 958 pages into a readable paperback represents a challenge. I checked some of my books for a comparison. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has 1114 pages. It is printed in a slightly smaller paperback and has smaller type. But it is flexible. The book opens flat at any point and is easy to read, in bed or otherwise. It was published in 2005 by Penguin Classics.

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An alternative is simply to print a larger paperback. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 and 2, have 1360 pages and 1288 respectively. Wordsworth Editions (God praise them) have simply published the book at 9 x 6 x 2.25 (230 x 150 x 55). It is flexible at all points and has large inner and outer margins. Heavy to read in bed, perhaps, but no fault of the publisher. Incredibly, it is available, new, at £6.99 (£5.24 from Amazon). I think Wordsworth always produce readable volumes. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

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Just to prove inconsistency, I’ve just checked my version of Anna Karenina. It’s also published by Penguin (2001). It has narrow, inconsistently sized inner margins and is not flexible. To me it’s unreadable. Off to the charity shop with it. The Wordsworth edition is £1.99, I’ll buy that one.

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The other book I bought (today) was purchased in Waterstones: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz, by Kevin Jackson. I looked through it and it seemed fine. On getting it home for a closer look it is not so good. It consists of diary type entries for the year 1922. The diary entries are set towards the middle of the page. That’s OK. But the inner margins are inconsistent, barely a quarter of an inch in places, making the entries hard to read. The book is fairly flexible and quite nicely produced, but why this inconsistency? On pages 250 and 251, for example, the type almost merges at the centre of the page. All through the book there are massive outer margins, just wasted space; I wouldn’t care at all if outer margins were narrow. Most of the book is fine (just), but tiny inner margins for no reason – it seems so careless The book is published by Windmill Books, part of The Random House group, at £9.99.

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According to the Amazon reviews the book may be badly or nonexistently edited too. That’s something I’ll return to another time. It seems that many publishers are only interested in rushing books out as quickly as possible, with little thought for quality.

That’s it. Rant over. Please let me know of other cases of thoughtless printing (and good printing too). I don’t suppose we can do anything about it, but we can try.

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