Book Review: Utopia Avenue

From very little on this blog about music to a surfeit of musical goodies all at once! Alternatively, in book-only terms, we proceed here from a review of a book about an automated human to a writer whose first novel, Cloud Atlas, also featured a created hero (and a female one, at that).

Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell‘s eighth book and whose title is the eponymous band – the ‘strangest British band you’ve never heard of’ – emerging out of the Soho scene in the late 1960s. A four-piece (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, with vocal duties shared between the first three who also contribute most of the songs), featuring one woman and three men with disparate class backgrounds, Utopia Avenue mix elements of folk, jazz, psychedelia and blues into a successful, and chart-busting, brew. The band were deliberately put together – curated, in modern parlance – by a manager seeking a new project after the break-up of a previous band: but Utopia Avenue are no Monkees put together largely for their looks: despite diverse backgrounds, all have pedigrees in their fields and no little amount of musical chops. Utopia Avenue play gigs, get noticed and signed, make a couple of records, be seen, and get the chance to try and break America before the band’s rising star is extinguished just as things start really coming together.

This being David Mitchell, we also have a sub-plot featuring some pyschosoterica – Mitchell’s term for the psychic abilities of some of his characters and the compelling good vs evil struggle in which they are engaged – although this does not include epic battles akin to The Bone Clocks, his previously published work. Mentioning that the character involved here is the guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, immediately strikes a chord for those familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre, but this aspect doesn’t take over the novel and it reads well as a study of a genuinely terrifying mental illness and a character’s own neurodiversity, as well as the links between mental health and tortured virtuosity (Mitchell is currently reading about Vincent van Gogh, which may well indicate some planning for a future work). At the same time, the late 1960s provides some fruitful contextual background for the study of mind-altering abilities.

Each of the chapters is titled for a song on the two Utopia Avenue LPs and tells of a stage in the band’s development predominantly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of that song’s composer. This leaves the drummer (and the manager) somewhat unstoried (this is, of course, a running gag when it comes to drummers) although they each get one writing credit and thus one chapter. Nevertheless, both are well fleshed-out characters – indeed, Griff, as might seem befitting for the drummer in a band in a Mitchell novel (i.e. the one whose responsibility it is to keep time), gets a lot of very good lines during band interviews and press conferences. This sort of structure gives the work a clean, chronological progression (even if it does deal with only with a highly compressed period of time) in Utopia Avenue’s rise to fame – this is quite clearly (and deliberately) written about on the way up – and, as such, this is one of Mitchell’s more conventionally structured novels, as the writer himself has acknowledged. Nevertheless, Mitchell is careful enough to sow sufficient seeds of the many petty trivialities that end up destroying bands.

Where Utopia Avenue really scores, however, is its depiction of scene. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, Mitchell has evidently done a phenomenal amount of research into the period which allows him to describe the scene predominantly in London, but also in New York (the band stay at the legendary Hotel Chelsea) and at Laurel Canyon in the US, accurately and with impressive detail and yet without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality. In the process, he read 50-60 music memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (including, I suspect, Springsteen’s Born To Run). It might be true that, ‘If you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there,’ but there are enough accounts around to allow Mitchell to be absolutely authentic in his descriptive detail of the bars and the dives of Soho (this being a band, much of the action takes place inside and after dark), although Mitchell is also very capable of describing the dynamics and breathtaking stillness of nature at work. This is done with such an easy touch that the essential detailing never appears laboured.

Secondly, Mitchell took piano and guitar lessons some ten years ago because he knew one day he would be writing some kind of rock novel. Consequently, he can write with accuracy about musicianship and the creative process. This is as true of guitar tunings, for example, as it is of the on-stage scenes as the band are playing at gigs. I’ve never been in a band, though I have been around them, and the dynamics and conversations between and about the band members, both on stage and while endlessly travelling to and from gigs, ring absolutely true while rarely falling into cliche. Mitchell is persuasive in letting the reader develop the impression that this might well be the best band they’ve never heard.

On the other hand, for all the excellence of his prose, Mitchell is not a lyricist – song lyrics appear throughout the book as the band perform their songs, as they have to in order to provide at least a ghost of how the band sounded, but several are not particularly convincing either in themselves as songs or in terms of aiding the impression of the star quality of Utopia Avenue. As Mitchell notes, there is no speaker in a novel to let you hear the music – and putting one in presents real challenges which, here, he is not fully able to overcome. It is – without the music – a tough thing to do to write song lyrics.

Thirdly, authenticity is hugely increased by the appearance in the novel of a large number of well-known contemporary names and faces. All of Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Keith Moon, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead – amongst dozens of others – have small walk-on parts and dialogue. This not only places Utopia Avenue at the heart of their milieu, while also increasing the accuracy of Mitchell’s scenic depiction, but also allows him to develop characterisation further as the members of Utopia Avenue become accustomed to their own growing stardom. At the same time, this adds additional strength to the novel’s exploration of the brief hopes of 60s musicians for a route to an alternative way of organising society – for a Utopia Avenue – before being dashed amidst commercialisation as well as rising violence.

It has to be said that this sort of placement doesn’t always work, either in terms of dialogue or in terms of accurate placement. Rick Wakeman appears on the first page of the novel – but he wouldn’t be building a reputation as a session man until 1969, after Utopia Avenue had already called it a day. Brian Eno also appears, not personally but in the sense of his description of the ‘scenius’ (the relationship between art and place); again, the period covered by the novel is simply too early for this. Mitchell does attach an acknowledgment that there are ‘lyrical anachronisms’ but invites us to look the other way on the basis that ‘music is timeless’.

That may be so, but I’m reluctant to call these – along with a small number of other aspects of dialogue that appear more 2020 than 1967 – as mistakes firstly because of the quality of the attention to detail that has otherwise gone into the work; and, secondly, because Mitchell is a writer whose work describes some aspect of people travelling through time. My suspicion, which is drawn not only from a desire to give Mitchell a bit of leeway on this, as he’s a writer I admire hugely, is that these things are not errors at all and may indeed be resolved in a later novel, perhaps in the Über-novel dealing with ‘unresolved characters with unfinished business’ about which he has frequently spoken in interviews and as he finds out more about his cast of characters.

For this is the thing with David Mitchell novels – not only is it a feature of his work that his characters (Levon Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s creator and manager; Luisa Rey, Crispin Hershey), places (Gravesend, here for Dean Moss, bassist, and previously for Holly Sykes in The Bone Clocks) and motifs (the ‘Star of Riga’; the Cloud Atlas Suite; the film PanOpticon; cats; butterflies; N9D) repeatedly appear and add richness to the ‘shared universe’ in which his novels exist, but he has his future novels already mapped out. As far back as 2014, for example, he was talking in interviews, and in a detailed way, of his next five novels (of which this is only the first). A writer who knows that much about his forthcoming works and who is in absolute command of his abilities as a writer tends not to make such basic errors, especially when the research is evidently otherwise so sharply on point and when such facts are easily checkable. I’m fully therefore expecting to see Elf Holloway, the woman keyboardist in Utopia Avenue, in one of these future books.

Ultimately, Mitchell has written a lucid, elegant narrative about people’s journeys of self-discovery and, in a musical context, of the connections they make which drive them in the process of making a band greater than the sum of its parts. He is a writer of great technique (repeating paragraphs at the end and start of chapters, for instance, thus creating a moment in and out of time for the ones in between). It’s no mean feat to extend such a narrative over a novel of some 560 pages without losing pace or direction, and to keep the reader turning the page and guessing as to the likely reason(s) for the band’s break-up. And, when it does, it has the capacity both to shock and to break your heart, as all great music can do. Pitch perfect.

Book Review – Machines Like Me

One of the UK’s foremost novelists, Ian McEwan has written 18 novels, of which Machines Like Me was the 17th. I’ve read many of its predecessors, and all since Enduring Love, but I only managed to catch up with this one in its paperback edition.

McEwan’s greatest skill as a writer lies in making us confront topical aspects of our own existence, whether it be terrorism (Saturday), climate change (Solar) or the extent to which the courts are able to adjudicate on matters of individual morality and belief (The Children Act). He writes most comfortably in terms of developing middle class characters, perhaps, but the situations which each of them have to confront are universal. He’s also of course no stranger to writing historical fiction, with many of his novels set at least partly in the past.

Told in ten chapters, Machines Like Me is no different in these respects. Charlie is a bit of a drifter but has come into an inheritance which he uses to buy Adam, an artificial human – a first (and limited) edition of ‘truly viable manufactured humans with plausible intelligence and looks, [and] believable motion and shifts of expression’. Together with Miranda, his upstairs neighbour and herself the daughter of a man of letters, he sets about creating Adam’s personality and the three set up an existence together. The novel is set in the 1980s, but an alternative reality, counterfactual version in which certain historical events have not happened, or happened differently. Most significantly, the Falklands War has been lost and, in the aftermath, Thatcher is facing political oblivion in the face of a Benn-led Labour Party; but, critically, Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaking and early computer genius of Bletchley Park, and a figure of long-standing literary interest for McEwan, has not committed suicide/suffered a careless accident/been killed by agents of the state but lives free and able to use his brilliance to develop and refine theories of the construction of artificial intelligence.

This has left the 1980s UK in a state of technological development much greater than we have even now, in the 2020s: autonomous cars, for example, have been on the streets since the 1960s – though Britain still suffers intense pollution – mobile phones are cutting edge rather than bricks; and Adam is here to carry out the tasks expected and desired of a creation deliberately constructed by humans.

Thus McEwan is able to confront the concerns now being raised by artificial intelligence – the future of work (and workers), and class, and whether and how humans can live alongside robots – in a way that does not potentially date by being set in the future and by concerns either that this or that event was ‘not going to be likely’ or which ‘did not turn out like that’. This is not science fiction and it does not predict; therefore, because the ‘facts’ of a historical novel are those which are set out within its pages, the morality issues which McEwan wants the work to confront are allowed to take their proper place at the centre of the novel.

Chief among these is the ability of humans and robots to live alongside each other and how those relationships can be regulated – the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each – within our existing understanding of the rule of law. This is not just a question of the lack of understanding of the illogicality of humans, and the question of ‘Who will write the algorithm for the little white lie?’; but also, and more critically, one of how the one can be held responsible for his or her actions vis-à-vis the other. In the process, McEwan raises issues of mental health – in a cutely aware nod to the demise in real life of Turing – as well as the moral choices we face when confronted with a dilemma. The shocking end to the work reveals the crucial truth present in all of McEwan’s novels – that you always have to be paying proper attention.

If the book is indeed a ‘novel about the power of novels… a celebration of the flaws that make us human‘ it’s only correct to point out the flaws in the work.

Firstly, the alternative reality 1980s is, in many cases, rather familiar – for Benn and Labour in the early 1980s, read Corbyn and Labour at the end of the 2010s – while there is also a reference to leaving the EU (to be fair, this was Labour Party policy at the time). Protest rallies and confrontations on the streets which set the popular background to events in the novel appear highly contemporary in the US (Black Lives Matter) and with the third Extinction Rebellion now taking place on the streets of London (and elsewhere), and convey the same impressions of social and political breakdown. Here, it is as if McEwan’s alternative reality was simply the product of reading today’s newspapers – and, probably, The Guardian – rather than one of powerful imagination. This does give a reminder of the contemporary nature of the conundrums that McEwan is raising – the novel is, after all, about the present not some alternative dystopia, but the counterfactual does appear to be somewhat easily, if not lazily, created.

Secondly – and somewhat stemming from the above – McEwan might well have set out both here as well as in Nutshell just to write, free of the detailed research that informed previous works, but there are several extended, McEwan-like discourses on different issues stemming from his research which are shoe-horned into the text and which disrupt the flow. The impression of wading through treacle is, when viewing the novel as a whole, fleeting – and, as above, the need to pay attention in a McEwan novel remains ever-present – but there is the thought that sharper editorial control would have produced a better, tighter novel.

Thirdly, Machines Like Me indicates a first person narrative, i.e. from the perspective of Adam, though the work is actually narrated by Charlie. It’s not that the title is odd – there is a reason for it, which appears late on in the text – but that the dialogue between Charlie and Miranda is curiously stilted. It doesn’t crackle with tension and desire, and neither does it convince. The characters simply do not leap off the page at you. This is particularly a problem when there are really only three characters in the novel (Turing is a fourth): the interactions that takes place between them is the novel’s only dialogue and thus greater emphasis is thrown on it. My impression throughout most of the work was that McEwan was running his own version of a Turing Test (whether you can tell the difference between a human and a robot mind) on the reader and that one – or even both – of Charlie and Miranda were also (earlier prototype) robots. This is not the case – but it’s as if McEwan has been unable to write dialogue between humans and robots at the same time, within the same novel, as between humans. It might well be that one of the problems of robots and humans living side-by-side turns out to be that dialogue does become stilted, but this doesn’t appear to be one of McEwan’s themes. Consequently, this leaves behind it the question that the dialogue is, disappointingly, awkwardly constructed.

Machines Like Me is a profound, uneasy and ultimately rather disturbing novel which thus fits rather well within McEwan’s 45-year canon concerning human beings in some way out of control. The questions that it raises are real and need to be confronted the closer we get to situations in which robots take a greater role in our actual everyday lives as opposed to simply in the manufacture of the products we consume. Autonomous driving (and the use of piloting software in aeroplanes) is a very real example of this, as indeed is the use of algorithms whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Whether we have the minds capable of producing answers to them – in government or in society more broadly – is an open question.

Book Review: A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles

When you can’t travel anywhere, reading a book which takes you on a journey, both metaphorically and vicariously, is not a bad substitute; and Ned Palmer‘s wedge of the shared history of the islands and nations which makes up the British Isles made for an interestingly reflective companion during the period of Covid-19 lockdown.

Palmer’s work is part-travelogue, part-paean to cheese and part-reference work. Nine of the ten chapters record a different period in the history of these islands, each featuring a ‘signature cheese’ curated to illustrate different aspects of cheese-making thought to be typical for the period covered by the chapter but which, crucially, is very much a modern cheese. This lends a contemporary relevance to ancient history which is an effective way of relating the circular, repeated aspects of the story of our history. Part of the description of each chapter is a visit by Palmer to the farm, accompanied by some hands-on cheese-making alongside those who count among the leading makers of the cheese of that style. The tenth chapter, something of a catch-all series of more or less tasting notes for the author’s favourite cheeses that didn’t make it to signature designation, is a rapid catch-up with ‘post-modern’ cheese-making in which experimentation, innovation and small-scale production, and the tidal wave of choice, contrasts heavily with the lost, grey-brown years of wartime mass production and rationing.

This is a socio-economic history and a consciously non-kings-and-queens trawl through the shared history of these islands. It’s one for cheese-lovers, certainly, as Palmer carries the historical aspects of his work somewhat lightly, as well as with a degree of somewhat whimsical humour. That shouldn’t disguise the depth of research that has gone into the production of this work (there is a reference to the Rare Book Reading Room at the British Library), and there is quality in the observations for example of the impact of the Black Death of 1348-1350 on land prices, wages and the fortunes of the peasantry amidst the decimation of the population, as well as the subsequent reactions of the landed classes and the Church. Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of unthreaded disconnectedness in how the tale is leavened, given that the author is not a trained historian (but a philosopher) and this sometimes means that some of the more astonishing aspects of the tale might almost be missed.

For instance, in dealing with the significance of the arrival of the railway, Palmer notes that the sudden ease of transportation that this brought, as well as the typically poor quality milk in London resulting from shortcuts in cattle feed and agricultural land being snapped up by developers, as well as a bout of disease, soon wiped out milk production in London to the point that there was no cheese-maker left in Derbyshire living within five miles of a railway line. This covers so much of importance, and which has continuing relevance to our contemporary history – the switch from agrarian to service economy (and, perhaps in the future, back again); the extent to which William Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’ sucks everything in amidst the lack of an effective regional policy; the mistreatment of animals; the stupidity of an economy based on a market which makes it more profitable for farmers to sell milk rather than make cheese; the problems to production diversity of the relentless search for efficiency; and the ravages of an industrial development financed by private interests with little thought to the apparent wider implications of their self-serving investments – yet all this is conveyed in the matter of four paragraphs (pp. 243-244).

The notion of cream being skimmed off the milk to make butter for the rich, while the poor had to make do with Suffolk Bang – a virtually inedible cheese, being ‘rock hard and tasteless’ and made from the skimmed milk left behind, and which had to be warmed before it became edible, is clearly worth more than a sidenote in any history.

There are frequent references to the scale of cheese-making which, before the advent of factories, provides some hint as to the importance of cheese both in the diets of working people and to the broader economy (as well as armies), as well as to regular imports of cheese from Europe – a process which has been going on to supplement, or perhaps supplant, domestic cheese-makers for at least 500 years.

And don’t get me started on the implications of imports of agricultural products from the US, something which I was startled to find has a history of more than 160 years as the UK emerged from the Corn Laws and the Navigation Laws into a burst of misplaced, foolish enthusiasm for free trade. Look for Velveeta (liquid gold) on your shelves, coming soon – a cheese so good it has to have its own – magnificent – social media department.

Palmer certainly knows his cheeses, however – and I don’t doubt that he also knows his beer, too.

For some cheeses, as he acknowledges, beer is actually frequently a much better pair than the more traditional wine – but both cheese and beer share a history (and not just in the proper recipe for Welsh rarebit). Both were originally discovered six or so thousands of years ago by some happy accident – or, perhaps, were both the result of periods of experimentation with food which provide a circular note of interest given what is happening today; both provide some aspects of the reasons why humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and started to settle in particular locations; both feature in the religious history of these islands in which the rituals and predictability of monastic life lend themselves as well to brewing as to cheese-making; and both came to feature in more recent history as the role and preserve of women, with women and girls as dairyhands (until being squeezed out by men as dairies were professionalised (pp. 236-237)) and also as alewives (with, in the latter case, the better women brewers featuring displays of hops in their windows which were, in several respects, the precursors of pubs).

Furthermore, the production of cheese and beer featured, for thousands of years, an unknown, but key, ‘magic’ ingredient whose actual nature was not discovered until the work of Louis Pasteur until as recently as 1857. Pasteurisation itself has caused controversy in cheese-making as in brewing; while the modern diversity of cheese production, with hundreds of farmhouse manufacturers now present in the UK making a huge variety of cheese, can be easily compared with the surely unrivalled period of experimentation with flavour additions in brewing, and the explosion of small-scale craft brewers, which is now going on. Furthermore, both have recovered, hugely, from the nadir and threatened extinction of 1970s mass production, ‘government cheddar’ on the one hand and Watneys Red Barrel on the other, as the result of desperate campaigning activity by a handful of committed activist-organisers aware that the love of their lives was on its uppers.

No such similar book telling the tale of the British Isles through beer appears to be around – at least, none that I can find in the last ten years that have been significant enough to be reviewed by Roger Protz, at any rate – and I can feel more than a twitch of researcher/writer curiosity.

But that’s really rather beside the point here: Ned Palmer has produced a useful reference work which, while his enthusiasm for cheese and people lends itself rather more naturally keenly to more modern times, and the more practical aspects of cheese-making, nevertheless conveys a history of complexity and rich detail of the frequently disregarded socio-economic aspects of history.

Now, where again has my travel ID gone?

Book review: The Gustav Sonata

The principle of abiding Swiss neutrality is well-known; what is less well-understood is the burdens that neutrality compels its citizens to bear and the price they have to pay in maintaining it.

Rose Tremain’s 2016 work seeks to fill those gaps in telling the story of Gustav Perle, born in 1942 in the (fictional) town of Maztlingen at the heart of Switzerland (interestingly, he is thus just a year younger than Tremain herself). Gustav’s early life – we first meet him aged five – in a family consisting only of himself and a distant, emotionally-cold mother, is marked not only by absences but also by shortages and deprivation, the cold and a tiny apartment in which even fixtures and fittings, still less possessions and toys, are both scarce, shabby and inadequate. The colour of his world is uniformly brown in an immediate post-war era in which the need for Swiss buildings to have nuclear-proof shelters gives notice of the threat of annihilation from the type of destruction that pays no heed to borders or, indeed, to neutrality. Gustav, a sensitive lad, spends his days in the kindergarten following mornings on his hands and knees helping his mother clean the church. Treats there are none, with any spare money going to fuel his mother’s unobtrusive evening drinking, while she dins into his young mind the need to replicate the ‘self-mastery’ that earmarks the country into which he was born.

It is little wonder that, when presented with a little glamour in the shape of Anton, a boy his own age but who doesn’t seem to suffer from the ‘self-mastery’ repression which marks his own upbringing, Gustav falls into a lifelong friendship both with him and with his family.

Structured, like a sonata, in three more or less equal parts, part 1 tells of Gustav’s young life before, in part two, going back to the immediate pre-war era before the chaos whose impact is to leave Gustav, born at the end of part two, in the desperate family situation in which the book opens. Part three brings the story into modern times, dealing with the years from 1992-2002 with Gustav, now a successful hotelier but, ever a smalltown boy, still having barely ventured outside his hometown, coming to terms with the implications of his upbringing but still in search of accommodation; while Anton’s undoubted musical gift takes him, in the face of perennial stagefright, no further than a career as a piano teacher.

The genesis of the novel seems to have been a short story involving a minor character in part 3, allied to the true story of Peter Grüninger, a wartime Swiss police chief in St. Gallen, on the border with Austria. Some versions of the novel include an author-penned Afterward detailing these – unfortunately, not mine (it has, I confess, sat on my to-read shelf for a couple of years), although much of the same ground seems to have been covered in a Guardian Books podcast.

Superficially this is a rather slight tale, written with an economy of language and an extremely light touch, but this betrays an emotional intelligence to savour, with Tremain realising her aim of writing something that is ‘like a Swiss watch, with simple facework concealing complex workings beneath.’ At one level a personal story affecting individuals in a couple of families; at another, a symbol not only of the sacrifices and the bravery which are associated with the moral conundrums that neutrality asks of ordinary people, but also the anxieties and the stress which results in those who, struggle as they might, cannot be as brave. Tremain is a writer of elegant prose and apparently easy skill – the colours of the Swiss mountainside at Davos, with Gustav on a holiday with Anton and his family, leap off the page and stand in dazzlingly sharp contrast to the drab beiges of the young Gustav’s ordinary existence, as indeed does the vivacity of the everyday colours that have occasion to interrupt his otherwise cheerless life. Linguistic motifs – repeated words, lessons, names – recur through the pages as do phrases in a musical score; while the tone of the novel twists repeatedly from the serious and sombre to the light-hearted and capricious, from the unremittingly sad to the uplifting, just as a score searches all moods in order to find a resolution.

Fans of novels which see all loose ends tied up will find much to enjoy here, although the criticism of an ending that leaves few questions unanswered somewhat misses the novel’s connection with the sonata form, in which resolution to the musical themes can be found as the piece moves from exposition to development to recapitulation. The keys to this are even clearly signalled in Tremain’s text: see, in particular, Beethoven’s Les Adieux, which Anton plays at a key moment.

The other substantial theme is loneliness – all the characters are lonely and are looking for friendship, or love, as a way of overcoming this. Both require compromise in some way, and certainly the ability to engage with others, whereas staying neutral, on the side lines, demands of us neither compromise nor engagement. We have that choice, but it is one which few actively select. Switzerland has been changing too, and one of Tremain’s repeated motifs is that the younger generation could not know the difficulties entailed by the threat that 1940s Switzerland, surrounded on all sides by axis powers, could have been invaded at any moment. This is not just the plea of a war-torn generation perceiving its own sacrifices but also a recognition, in this context, that those sacrifices bore a tremendous cost which continues to reverberate.

Tremain deftly ties both themes together, but with such a light touch that the ultimate moral is one that might easily be missed: neutrality implies loneliness and the costs of that, in a world such as ours of shrinking distance, with borders – rightly – breaking down, in terms of individuals’ lives and relationships, is one that is simply too high. No man, nor no state, is an island.

Book Review: Greetings from Bury Park

Rather shamefully, for a Twitter user whose handle is ‘PlayedOutScenes’* and, somewhat less consciously, whose blog has the title this one does,** I missed out on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir first time round when it was published in 2007. Recently re-packaged and with a new Afterword to tie in with Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film (which I’ve also yet to see; the wonderful, but currently suspended, Screen Machine – which, in normal times, brings us our cinema – and which did show it was sadly on the mainland when it was current), I finally managed to pick up a copy around the same time as I did one of the film’s soundtrack (on white vinyl, of course). Yes, iTunes: here is indeed another copy of ‘Thunder Road’.

You don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to read it – though it does help to be able to make some important connections: each chapter is the title of a Springsteen song and is headed with a quote from (usually) a different song; while other lyrics and references creep, no doubt consciously, into the text including, on one occasion, one from how Springsteen introduced a particular song on stage at a particular point in his career (and, indeed, at the point when Sarfraz became a fan). No doubt about it, Sarfraz is hardcore, having toured to see Springsteen in many different countries, but the book is not about Springsteen; our hero is, rather, a hook on which to hang a memoir that Sarfraz wrote after his father’s early death as a way of trying to understand who he was and as a way of seeking answers to the questions that he could no longer put to him. Springsteen is a guide uniquely well-equipped to supply the key to the secrets of how to walk like a man.

Each chapter focuses on a particular theme. His father’s early life in this country and before he brought his wife and children over to join him, and then family life with particular regard to his older brother and sister, cover nearly one-third of the book. These set the scene for Sarfraz’s discovery of Springsteen (via a Sikh lad who thereby changed his life and became his blood brother) and his own growing up, including a memorable summer in the US; employment; dating and his mother’s attempts to marry him off in his twenties and thirties; his faith; and, finally, issues of identity, including about being Muslim in a post-9/11 world which sees Muslims as terrorists. The identity issues around being Asian and a Springsteen fan feature throughout (and clearly dominate the publicity for the film).

Giving each chapter a theme means that the narrative features events from Sarfraz’s life as a boy directly alongside those of him as an adult (a redundancy gave him the time to produce, and then pitch, the screenplay on which Gurinder Chadha based her film of something that, in its raw form, would otherwise be unfilmable). Taking such a non-linear, and more compartmentalised, approach is not the only way to tell a biography but, given Sarfraz’s aims, it is particularly appropriate since it lends him the opportunity to collect his thoughts on his father’s motives and actions not only in a retrospective fashion, echoed by his fandom, but also in a way that might have found sympathy with his father. The (slight) downside is that the narrative’s emotional peak – his father’s death – occurs in the first chapter; the Springsteen-related highlight – meeting him at some length while covering a legal case (a precedent-setting one, too) as a reporter but, more so, suggesting to him a particular song and arrangement after queuing for photographs before a gig in Sheffield, and then hearing it done at that gig with a dedication – occur within a few pages of each other before the book is half-way through. The book doesn’t sag thereafter, because Sarfraz has been careful to explain his purpose, but it probably helps to appreciate at the outset that this personal ribbon of highway is a non-linear one.

The immediate attraction of Springsteen’s lyrics to Sarfraz is immense and made clear right at the outset – Springsteen, famously, also had a father who was hard to reach and to whom he could not relate, at least not while growing up in the same house. Many of the single releases apart – which were, frequently and immensely frustratingly, clearly atypical examples of the depth of his writing – Springsteen is a lyricist of phenomenal and consistent power, over some fifty years of creativity, and I felt that same draw when listening to his songs for the first time. Forty years on, and hundreds of plays later, ‘The River’ still has the power to move this listener to tears at the protagonist’s agonised despair at the death of his romantic dreams. That a perfect three-minute record could both be a call to love and to action and, at the same time, convey a depth of meaning was not exactly new to this fifteen-year old in 1978 listening to ‘Darkness’ in the immediate aftermath of punk. However, with growing discovery of the possibilities of textual analysis, Springsteen’s lyrics – the songs being frequently novellas, hinting as much as they revealed while capturing breathtaking moments of candour or insight – represented true literature as significant as anything written by the giants of classical or contemporary literature. It’s a genuine thrill, from one cautious man of the road to another, to read that same discovery from the perspective of another fan.

Only Sarfraz knows whether he succeeded in his mission. I suspect that he did, at least to some degree. Regardless, the stand-out feature of his memoir is its heartfelt call for a greater understanding of the bravery and the sacrifices of the pioneer generation in any circumstance – and I, too, am descended from relatively recent generations of migrants – in leaving behind their families and all that they knew to strive for the means for a better life amidst discrimination, suspicion and racism; and amidst constant calls on their time and their resources, yet freely to give of both.

At the same time, it’s unbearably sad that such sacrifices are worth little without recognising that setting people of the next generation free to exercise freedom of choice about how they live their own lives is not a rejection of those sacrifices but the embodiment of what they themselves had striven for. Domestic authoritarianism is never the answer and that’s a universal truth to families in Karachi, Pakistan just the same as in Freehold, New Jersey: the fear that ‘There’s just different people coming down now/And they see things in different ways’ – crucially acknowledged by the son character in ‘Independence Day’ – would have been something equally recognisable to Douglas Springsteen as to Mohammed Manzoor. And, I suspect, to their fathers, too. In the meantime, ensuring that our best steps are not stolen from us is a job for us all, sons and fathers alike, and at the collective, societal level as well as at the individual one.

And, if Sarfraz’s memoir helps in overcoming the need for us to learn those same lessons at least every other generation, it will have done terrific service.


Footnote: A philosophy from Badlands / ** An excerpt from Rosalita. There is, of course, a Springsteen lyric for every occasion – I even found my own name in a Springsteen lyric once and, coincidentally, one from around the time Greetings from Asbury Park came out. I’m not sure whether I’m sadder that this particular song never made it out of the studio (it wasn’t one of those the subject of that court case); or that, despite the mesmerising lyrical scope hinted at by its title, it was a song for which Springsteen never got round to writing any words.

Book review: Unspeakable

Dilys Rose‘s Unspeakable was published back in 2017 by Freight Books, whose subsequent (and apparently controversial) liquidation may mean that this is now a little hard to find in print. Sold alongside Graeme Macrae Burnett’s work as, in the words of the Scottish Review of Books reviewer, ‘her bloody project‘, this might well fall into a genre that we might well call ‘Scottish murder ballads’, for the book is a fictional novel conveying the story of the Kirk-sanctioned murder of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man to be hanged in Britain for blasphemy (in 1697).

The novel is set in the late seventeenth century, amidst a tumultuous time in Scottish religious and political history. Covenanters, whose convictions about the Reformation had been sustained throughout a long period of repression under the Stuarts by the zeal with which they maintained them, engaged first in a period of bloody battles with opponents which became known as the ‘killing time’. Then, following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 in which – in Scotland – James VII (the last Stuart monarch; James II of England) was held to have forfeited the crown by his actions, there was a period of internal blood-letting as Kirk ministers and those in other positions of authority, including in education, who were deemed to have remaining sympathies for ‘the King abroad’ were purged as the Covenanters, in full political cry, consolidated their stranglehold on the Kirk and, consequently, on Scottish society. (I’ve used four Wikipedia entries in this para, starting from the general one on the history of Scotland.)

Thomas is a rather precocious and acutely sensitive child prone from the outset to a persistent questioning of the world around him. The family is better off than many, but he experiences increasing poverty and destitution and he and his sisters – one much older, one younger – are eventually taken to live with a rich guardian who grudgingly maintains them, in young Thomas’s case apparently up until the point of maturity, and no farther. Thomas’s appetite for learning and for questioning the world around him – in those pre-enlightenment years – as well as his naive appetite for surrounding himself with unsuitable friends and for ignoring institutional power, see his downfall and murder following the inevitable betrayal.

Given that we know the end before we start the novel, there is not too much in the way of plot spoilers to cover up. The novel tells well of the poverty and the filth of the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town as well as the contrasting riches enjoyed by those who are well-to-do. For the poor, life is cheap and death is everywhere, debts owed to rapacious landlords are a fact of life, and cruelty and abuse are rife; for the others, there is plenty, and harvest failures mean little interruption in the dedication of the rich to consumption. This also comes across in how Rose uses language – dialect for when Thomas is conversing with his peers; high society language in the letters he exchanges with his sisters while studying, as well as in those from his mother to her brother, a representative of the Kirk, desperately seeking alms. The effect is to drive home the clear breach in society between the haves and the have nots, with the Aikenheads straddling both but falling inevitably among the latter in what might be a reflection of what we have come these days to call the ‘hollowed-out middle’. Other than that, the Kirk’s prying prudishness plays an ever-present, and evermore costly, role in the lives of ordinary people and is indeed a character of the novel in its own right, albeit one that rather ghosts around the pages in a series of vignettes than one that actively inhabits them.

There are perhaps two functions of a historical novel: one being to re-interpret and tell a story around actual historical events in the context of their own times; the other being to use that to hold up the mirror of reflection to history, the better to understand our own times. It’s possible to see elements of both in Rose’s work here: in the latter case, a society riven in two by a major, and fractious, public debate between two sides one of which was marked by a zealous (and ultimately successful) pursuit of its aims, accompanied by subsequent purges of the other from public life, and taking place amidst poverty and worsening inequality, bears more than a passing resemblance to the post-Brexit United Kingdom. As, indeed, do events only this weekend in which police forces warned of capacity being overrun by people dialling 999 to inform on their neighbours – a nation of inveterate curtain-twitchers, us – to say nothing of essential public health contracts in these times being given to Tory donors and Brexiteer mates.

An understanding of Scottish history of the time is somewhat critical since Rose takes much for granted. In some ways, she is right to do so as Aikenhead, twenty at the time of his murder, was a child for much of them and, since the novel is told from his own perspective, they take place at a level way over his head. Partly, this helps to cast ordinary people as in the grip of substantial and despotic institutions whose workings they could never hope to influence. Nevertheless, broader references to some of the key events of the time would have helped the reader grasp a little more of the struggle going on. The lack of contextual detail makes it a little hard, from a modern perspective, to comprehend the intensity of the struggle being waged or the grip on society of a Kirk itself beset by the internal furies which it had unleashed.

While this was certainly the last execution for blasphemy in Britain, it remained a capital offence in Scotland until 1825. Aikenhead’s murder may well not have been the last Kirk-sanctioned killing in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, but it would have been beneficial for Rose to have engaged in some form of reflection of why this turned out to be the last such case. It seems, from these pages, unlikely that this reflects public horror at the killing, despite the comments of some at the time; and nor therefore does it seem particularly likely that the Kirk had hereby achieved its aim of a ‘vigorous execution [to curb] the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land,’ not least since the extent of this had been only recently thought sufficient to prompt a tightening of the offence on the statute book. Perhaps it was the arrival of the Enlightenment, although this would have to wait another twenty years, or perhaps it was the – perhaps unintended – work of the pamphleteers of the time.

Furthermore, the tone of many of the exchanges between Aikenhead and his peers frequently take on what to a modern ear would be ‘banter’ – jokiness and joshing between people with little wider import (and frequently influenced by alcohol). Some leavening by the author of the seriousness of these exchanges would have been helpful, as well as in helping us understand the reasons for the betrayal; these are hinted at, and briefly, but, in both cases, they are absolutely hindered by Rose’s focus on Aikenhead to the almost total exclusion of the character development of his peers.

Consequently, the motives behind Thomas’s betrayal are undeveloped and what we are left with is the story of a naive young man, perhaps with some autistic traits, unable to learn the lessons of what he sees around him and, it would seem, rather missing forms of developmental guidance. Without a clear understanding of the motives of those involved, or a perspective on the context of the events they find themselves in, the other purpose of the historical novel – to review historical events in the context of their own times – is rather lost. Rose’s historical novel thus falls rather between two stools and, despite the wealth of research undertaken for the novel, it is what of this that ended up in her drafts folder that marks this out to be, rather sadly, an opportunity missed.

Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.


Book Review: Worth Dying For – The Power and Politics of Flags

I’m not much of a flag-waver myself, tending to run away from all such expressions of jingoism, and typically seeing flags in line with Eddie Izzard‘s famous routine. Consequently, I was pulled into Tim Marshall‘s 2016 work by the title and hoping to benefit from a sociological examination of why it is that people choose to wave flags to the point of seeing them as worth dying for (or, of course, under). Perhaps, extending from there, a consideration of the varying impacts of the concomitant rise in nationalism and consciousness of identity of the sort that makes Eriskay for example (pop: 143; ‘If you’re born on Eriskay, you play for Eriskay’), feel that it needs its own flag, along with North Uist and Benbecula (a process which seems to be still underway) and those already in place for South Uist and Barra.* In a globalised world so dominated by a few billionaires, the proliferation of flags serves only one purpose.

These hopes were, in my case, raised rather by the excellent copywriting job on the back cover and the judicious use of review quotes on the inside front pages, and rather less by how the actual content turned out.

What we have is a fairly short work reviewing, at the outset and in separate chapters, ‘Old Glory’ and the Union Flag before a succession of chapters considers a total of more than one hundred flags in a succession of countries and across continents (and of institutions and affiliations). We have a decent stab at the history of why the chosen flags look as they do, as regards the colour choices, emblems and the symbolisms of what is being depicted; and we have fairly lengthy sections in the first two chapters on the reverence of flag etiquette for ‘Old Glory’, in particular how it should be folded and disposed of, and where and how the Union Flag can be flown. The remaining chapters, dealing substantially with flags sharing certain symbolisms, slog in a fairly routine, but exhausting, fashion through the history detail of each one, little of which is likely as a result to stick for very long. Less here would definitely be more.

This is a shame, as some of the content – for instance, a specially-conducted interview with Fred Brownell, the designer of South Africa’s post-apartheid flag (pp. 214-218) – is interesting and thought-provoking. (And there’s also a cracking anecdote about the design being faxed to Nelson Mandela.) There is also a worthwhile linking of sport, particularly football, and national consciousness with the rise of the waving of the cross of St. George at England games in Euro ’96 and in the waving of the German black, red and gold at the 2006 World Cup, which Germany hosted, although British Sea Power hit absolutely the right flag-waving notes here. Oh, welcome in!

Marshall is of course a journalist and it’s clear that my hopes for what I had wanted to read had raised the bar far too high for the author’s level of engagement with his subject matter (if any of my readers know the book I’m looking for, recommendations by way of comment underneath this review are absolutely welcome!). He retains a journalist style throughout, and while there are certain issues with that in an academic context, these can often be disregarded outside academia as long as the work retains a scholarly approach. Here, however, the writing style descends frequently into attempts at comedic flippancy which mean that much of it is impossible to take seriously. Or, thereafter any of it. Late on, for example, after pointing out that Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata is better known outside Mexico for a style of moustache than for changing history, Marshall goes on further to conclude that:

This is only marginally better than the fate which befell the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, who went on to become a biscuit. (p. 228 of my paperback copy)

Factually, it may well be true that ‘squashed flies’ are named after Giuseppe Garibaldi – and no less a source than A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down confirms it – but this sort of knockabout humour has no role in serious debate. It is not an isolated example – the book is littered with similar instances of this apparently offhand, casual treatment. Journalists – especially war correspondents (and Marshall covered the break-up of Yugoslavia, and was also in Syria) – often adopt a black humour as a thick skin against the horrors of what they see and report, but the skill of the war correspondent is in knowing when that skin must be shed. Apart from the (non-) suitability of such an approach to the subject matter at hand here – remember, this was set up as a serious piece of work – this also means that Marshall is unable to make best use of the material he has – and quite painstakingly – gathered.

Secondly, there is little attempt at any synthesis. There are insights throughout, but a book that purports to discuss the ‘power and politics’ of flags simply needs to have a chapter in conclusion, bringing together the themes of colonisation and revolution, independence, internationalism and the rise of the nation state and the challenges to it which inevitably underpin the content. And which, given his coverage of the death and dismemberment of Yugoslavia, Marshall might be well-placed to comment on. Had there been one, my view of the book might have been lifted a notch. However, after a discussion of the value of the International Flag of Planet Earth – dismissed on the grounds that ‘As a planet, we are not united’ (as if people are united by and under any flag adopted on their behalf) – Marshall concludes just two paragraphs later by pointing out that the flags which run the length of the UN headquarters complex are:

A visually clear and bold affirmation of our diversity in colour, language and culture, political and otherwise, and simultaneously a reminder that we can come together – and that, for all our flaws, and all our flags, we are one family. (p. 281)

This is a substantially idealistic comment (and a useful echo of the British Sea Power approach to the waving of flags) – but it stands in stark contrast to much of the history of flags. European – and world – history is bloodthirsty, cruel and exploitative, stemming substantially from the desire to plant one’s own country’s flag on the territory of another. A history as steeped in hatred as that of flags which concludes with such optimistic idealism needs a pretty substantial consideration of how we have come now to view flags if that conclusion could in any way be supported and justified.

* Largely an innocent way of marketing (or branding) a place rather than a statement of identity; Eriskay is not about to declare independence from the Western Isles (which also has its own flag). But if your answer to marketing Eriskay is a flag, rather than something that involves ponies or, more obviously, whisky, I think you’re asking the wrong consultants.

Book Review: The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Neil Oliver’s recent history is one of those works of non-fiction which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Born out of people coming up to him and asking about the places they should visit, this is Neil Oliver’s attempt to crystallise the history of these islands into a series of short essays about the most remarkable finds, events and structures which tell the story of the people who have lived here. Starting with footprints uncovered briefly in the mud at Happisburgh in East Anglia, which may have been up to 950,000 years old and at a time when this ‘long island’ was joined to the rest of Europe and there was no sea Channel, Oliver pursues his narration chronologically, proceeding up to the Millennium Dome and the Scottish Parliament building before back tracking slightly to relate in the final two essays to structures which highlight the main two aspects of his theme.

The first of these is that these islands have a history of bloody conflict and that:

We have arrived where we are in these islands at the end of a long and bloody road… The path back to that chaos is quick and straight and easily taken. Like it or not, believe it or not, we live protected by a shelter made only of our old mistakes. (p. 403)

And, we might add, for as long as we continue to recognise those mistakes as such.

Secondly, standing on the shingle beach at Dungeness ‘under the weight of the biggest, bluest sky… pebbles slipping and sliding beneath my feet while the sea rolls’, is that these islands are fragile, at ‘nature’s mercy most of all.’ (p. 406)

Published in 2018, amidst a risingly intemperate political discourse about our post-Brexit future and against a background of increasing concern about climate change, manifest to island nations most evidently in rising sea levels and plastic pollution, it is easy to identify the prompts for the centrality of such themes.

Oliver is not a trained historian and this is not a work of scholarship – he studied and worked firstly as an archaeologist before re-training as a journalist and finding his niche in broadcasting – and the language of the writing, as the above quotes testify, is poetic, often spiritual in nature and even romantic (as, perhaps, befits what is a self-confessed ‘love letter to the British Isles’ and p. 410). The essays – from two up to (rarely) eight pages – start with some contextual, frequently contemporary, analysis as well as descriptive detail about the selected location before Oliver seeks to use his undoubted empathy to put himself not only in that place but in that time, to use his imagination to project what it would have been like there, at that particular point, and then to provide some observations about the significance and continuing resonance of the site. Nevertheless, this is never an over-romanticised piece of work.

Oliver is careful with his choices, ensuring that the nations and regions which make up the British Isles are fairly represented (Ireland and Wales each have eight selections and Scotland 22, while the islands in our archipelago are represented by Orkney, Isle of Man, Skye and Iona, the Channel Islands and the Aran Islands), and that London and its immediately surrounding area (with ten) do not dominate. Frequently, the choices are coastal – for evident reasons of maritime history and the invasion, raiding and incursions, and plantations to which these islands have been subject – thus ensuring that the ‘peripheries’ occupy the central locations they deserve.  He is also careful with his language, often referring – as he acknowledges – to ‘these islands’, partly as a result of the evident political challenges of naming and labelling conventions and border issues; but also because he has come to the view, as a result of his travels, that the shared histories of the people of the ‘long island’, the flow of the population movements which have resulted during that history and the sheer longevity of the land in the face of the brevity of such human concepts as borders across a topography, nations and national identities, are such that:

Instead of any sense of different countries, I see only one place. (p. 409)

A view that will, no doubt, continue to prove as controversial as Oliver himself has been in recent years. Clearly, a perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, an archaeologist. He is, nevertheless, also absolutely correct to recognise that ‘The flow of new arrivals has never stopped’ (p. 407); we are all migrants, and we always have been. At a time when the far right is seeking to ‘claim’ sites such as Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy (the latter not covered by Oliver here) simply because they are representative of the melting pot of cultures and traditions that migration represents, this is an important assertion.

The collection is evidently an entirely personal one – the final selection mostly self-selecting as a result of some places registering with him more than others during his almost constant travelling around these islands. As such, there is almost zero point in personal quibbles with Oliver’s choice of locations to tell the story that he himself wants to tell. (I can claim to have visited no more than one-third of the hundred sites selected.)

Nevertheless, there is a heavy focus on politics and power struggles, and military might, somewhat to the exclusion of social and economic history and the selection is therefore a little conservative. The history of people is clearly there – it underpins many of the essays – and, while there are entries for the great famine in Ireland (Abbeystrewry Cemetery, Skibbereen), the highland (and island) clearances (Bettyhill), on the struggle for workers’ rights (Tolpuddle) and on the birth of the industrial revolution (Ironbridge), entries on the creative and literary tradition outnumber these. To tell a more rounded tale, I would have liked to see something on Peterloo (and see other references passim on Keith’s site), the 200th anniversary of which only just post-dated the publication of this work, or the Chartist Movement or on suffragettes, in which Emmeline Pankhurst’s youth at the outset of her involvement (she was just 14 when she attended her first meeting of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage) also bears a striking resonance with some of today’s environmental activists, not least in reactions to them.

This is not just a personal preference, however: protest – and reactions to it – to achieve social change is also part of our bloody history, and a major one at that. Furthermore, it’s also a part of the mistakes that we’ve made which help to shape the shelter under which we live today, while the accommodations that we have reached as a result of such actions amount to one of the reasons why the social peace that we enjoy in general is both hard-won and often fractured as a result of the mistakes that societies like ours, still ridden with class and other hierarchical structures, continue to make.

There remains plenty of room for protest action as we continue to shape the social aspects of our shared destiny, and anywhere that it is absent from the pages of history books represents an unfortunate omission, whatever the qualities of the surrounding work.

Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.