I Reject

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I REJECT

 

24 June 2016

 

I reject you, my country.

You who used to be my country, I divorce you.

You have become mean and full of hate

You look over your shoulder for immigrants

And complain even where there are none.

You have no vision for the world

You have no love for the world

No knowledge of other worlds

Resentment is your life.

 

Don’t worry. I’ll still pay my taxes and vote.

We have a business arrangement. In return

You care for me disdainfully if I’m ill

You send a policeman if I’m burgled

And sometimes clean the street. There’s no need

To revise the social contract. But you are not mine.

I know you.

 

 

India, India

Indian rail image

I promised to say more about my trip to India, especially on the wildlife. There is too much to say. My foremost interest was the birds and they were utterly fantastic, the numbers, the colours, the variety. At this time of year India has not only its resident birds, but many winter visitors, some familiar to the British birder (Hobby, Tree Pipit, Little Stint) and others less familiar from Siberia (Siberian Rubythroat, Marsh Sandpiper, Black Stork). I was interested to see many Indian birders. At the main wetland reserve, Bharatpur, most visitors go round in rickshaws (the rider/drivers really know their birds) and I saw one very attractive young Indian woman with binoculars leap from her rickshaw, guided by the driver, to see the Siberian Rubythroat.

 

Sinerian Rubythroat

The tiger reserve – Ramthambore – was similar in that there was a mix of European and Far Eastern tourists with Indians among the visitors. This is obviously good for conservation. We did see a pair of tigers, but since about twelve vehicles – jeeps and boneshaker ex-army trucks – were clustered round them, there was a bit of circus about the drama. The leopards sighting was entirely different. No-one else was there. The leopards – an unusual unit of dominant male, young female and hanger-on male – seemed unaware of us. I don’t think we felt like peeping Toms when the couple proceeded to have sex.

The politics? In the small towns and villages, I noticed many banners hung up with head-and-shoulders pictures of series of people, maybe ten to a banner. I had my suspicions, but I asked the tour leader. They were for local elections. Bad point: the party lists were either all-male or had one woman included. Good point: in a village, I saw a poster for what appeared to be an independent candidate whose appeal, judging by his symbol, appeared to be agrarian. He included his website address and email.

Oh, I haven’t even started.

Back to literary matters next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lies, economy with the verite and statistics

Governments, managers, advisors and consultants think like this.

 

George spends on average one and a half minutes a day putting on and taking off shoes and other footwear.

 

Over a year this amounts to nine hours, seven and a half minutes. That’s without allowing for the extra one and a half minutes in a leap year. So add on a third of that one and a half and in the average year, the time used up is nine hours, eight minutes. That’s without considering time taken in maintenance activities such as cleaning shoes and clipping toenails.

 

Recommendation: cut one leg off, saving four hours, thirty-four minutes minimum.

Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

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Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

Silence!

Apologies to those who follow this blog and actually look forward to the posts (yes, I know who you are and where you live).

 

Let me reassure any who were worried about my silence. I am alive. Well, I made a “friend” of a guy on one of the social media sites once, someone I knew and actually did not get on with very well, and soon after he died. I went on getting prompts to endorse him for things for ages after. It seemed eery.

 

I’m alive but very busy with an election (the Clacton parliamentary and Brightlingsea county council by-elections). This doesn’t take up all my time but does make it hard to concentrate on meaningful blog posts.

 

You didn’t know I was a political activist? Good. I mean it would worry me if people could deduce a complete picture of me from my involvement in one thing (poetry). Mind you, scientists can do that with dinosaur bones.

Book Review: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

In Britain Umberto Eco is chiefly known for “The Name of the Rose”, that brilliant detective story evoking, and depending on, the learned culture of the high Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. By the way, if you’ve only seen the film, apart from Sean Connery’s restrained performance it’s a travesty and has got about as much in common with the book as a nursery rhyme with Hamlet (only nursery rhymes are short). I’d got the impression he was a bit of a one-book sensation: “Foucault’s Pendulum” had got the kind of reception common for disappointing follow-ups to a masterpiece, like “Shardik” following “Watership Down”.

 

I was wrong. “The Prague Cemetery” is brilliant and extremely readable.

 

As with “The Name of the Rose”, Eco has more than done his homework. His story reeks of the unstable politics of the middle to late 19th century in Europe. He states that most of the characters are real people.

 

His main character, Captain Simonini, a Northern Italian spending most of his life in Paris, is profoundly unpleasant. At any stage if chance or miscalculation had left him dead, I wouldn’t have been remotely bothered except it would have cut the book short. It’s remarkable that Eco can centre the story on such a uniformly unpleasant character and hold our attention.

 

Simonini is not exactly a spy, but he operates in the general area of spying and official skulduggery, while earning his daily bread forging wills. He has a very long list of hates – women, Jesuits, Freemasons, Germans, Jews – and the only thing he seems to really like is eating and drinking well – but he is never drunk. He has no religion and no secular ideals. He will do anything for money as long as it isn’t too dangerous or too distasteful. He befriends people and then kills them if it suits him.

 

He finds himself used by four different states, by the Catholic Church and by Freemasons, and he exploits and in part deceives them all. He loves inventing credible conspiracies and selling the information as true. He is the origin of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the notorious forgery which presented the Jews as tightly-organised in pursuit of world domination. This was used to justify pogroms in Russia and then the Holocaust. Simonini would have been proud, if frustrated that he hadn’t made more money from it.

 

There is an clever passage early on where Simonini meets Sigmund Freud in his preaching-the-benefits-of-cocaine period. Freud’s theories (not on cocaine) seem relevant to a mystery that is maintained for most of the book. Simonini has a kind of double, a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to know everything he has done, reminds him of the worst things and condemns them.

 

It’s just brilliant. It must sound depressing and in a sense it is, but I enjoyed it. Why?

 

 

 

Book Review: Michel Houllebecq, The Map and the Territory

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I had never heard of Michel Houllebecq. It shows how local much news still is. France is no distance, you can even go there on the train, and yet someone famous in France can be nearly unknown in England.

Then I picked up his novel “The Map and the Territory” in my local library – in translation, of course.

To get this out of the way for those who had heard of him – Houllebecq is not purely famous in France for his novels. He was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after saying Islam was “the most stupid of religions”. Now I don’t know the background, his arguments or other things he said, so I’m commenting from quite a lot of ignorance, and yet I feel I should comment.

First, that statement seem to me pretty stupid. But then I’ve got a History degree and if you ask me about Islam, I think of the culture of Andalucia, of Arab learning, of Sufi mysticism, of the mixed but by no means bad record of Muslim rulers of pre-Raj Indian states. Just as when I see it implied in a book that there may be some fundamental militaristic or warrior-like characteristic among Germans, I think, “Not so fundamental because the argument really won’t wash except for a period of at most two hundred years”. So I wonder what in contemporary Islam Houllebecq was attacking.

Secondly, in English and in English law at least, to attack a religion is not racist unless the attack on the religion is (as it sometimes is in England) a cloak for racism.

Thirdly, to incite racial or religious hatred seems to me to require more than to say something is stupid. His statement was silly, provocative, possibly grandstanding, but I’d have thought unlikely to incite the sort of hatred that leads to physical attacks.

Nonetheless, it’s probably a good thing I had no idea of all this when I read his book – because I liked it. As some reviewers commented, authors who include themselves in their own books rarely create credible characters (they may not have put it quite like that) and there are writers whose subject seems permanently to have become themselves (arguably forgiveable for poets, but I’m thinking, for example, of Norman Mailer). But the Michel Houllebecq who appears in this novel is shabby, self-deluding, ingloriously heavy-drinking, confused – though achieving something much better later. There are wholly inglorious touches like finding that his kicks have been from on-line lingerie catalogues. In other words, if you didn’t know this was a portrait of the author himself, you might well say, “What a fantastic character portrait!”

But Houllebecq is only the second character of the book. The main one is an artist who seems to be borderline autistic, brilliant with detail but oddly detached in his personal relations even a love affair, obsessional but fairly unworried about it, who first hits the headlines with endless photographic reproductions of Michelin maps. The author seems to be poking fun at the art world and the whole concept of art. This character has some similarity to the main character in Tom McCarthy’s “C”, which I reviewed a while back. But whereas I was unsure if McCarthy realised how oddly emotionless his character was, Houllebecq seems to know he’s making us a fairly sympathetic portrait of an odd fish – two odd fish, in fact.

The book is truly humane. In the third part, several police detectives appear and they are shown as conscientious, worried, uncertain people, doing their best to retain their humanity in the face of a job that obliges them to confront horror and immeasurable meanness. By the way, one of them is of Lebanese origin, another sympathetic character is Black African and I see no sign of racism.

It was interesting to read a contemporary French novel and find things that, even in what appeared to be a very good translation, one would not find in a British or American book. One is long sentences. There are several, peppered with semi-colons, that an Anglo-Saxon editor would not have allowed. Short sentences can pack a lot of punch, but I say, “Vive la France!”. Long sentences like these convey a complex interrelationship of ideas and qualifications in a way a series of short sentences could not. Another is a willingness to engage philosophical concepts head on. Few British writers do that, especially since Iris Murdoch’s death. But leading on from that is a French characteristic I like less, a tendency to throw around abstract concepts as though they were concrete, to talk about Liberty, Reason or whatever without any sense that these are fuzzy approximations needing clarification.

Houllebecq does seem to go a long way for publicity, but his book deserves consideration for itself.

Book Review: Martin Pugh, “We Danced all Night”

“We Danced all Night – a Social History of Britain between the Wars” is readable and full of interesting information. We learn about diet, attitudes to crime (varying hugely between one working-class community and another), the changing position of women, sport and class (football had rapidly become a working-class sport, but cricket maintained a gulf between “gentlemen” (well-off amateurs) and “players” (professionals) – about motorists who regarded any government restrictions as unacceptable, the insecurity of rented accommodation, attitudes to Empire and monarchy – you name it.

One of the main messages is that living standards rose throughout the period. The effect of the Great Depression was not as great as we tend to believe, except in specific areas of heavy industry or mining such as the Welsh valleys or Tyneside.

Inevitably there are a few gaps. Martin Pugh mentions that Trade Union membership rose, but has nothing to say about the significance of the unions in the lives of industrial and transport workers, or about industrial disputes other than to note their numbers. Differences between North and South within England are stressed, with some reference to Scotland, but I could not have worked out from this book if the social history of Scotland or even more, Wales was different from that of England in this period in any way, except in the high unemployment in South-east Wales. Odd that, as Pugh is a Welsh surname.

On the political front, one of the main findings is just how conservative the newly-powerful Labour Party was. He has a bit of a thing about George Orwell and snipes at him in several places – not without justice at times, but he says Orwell was disabled as a social commentator by his left-wing views and upper-class origins. Left or right wing views do not disable you as a commentator. They give your comments an angle others should take into account. And Orwell’s origins were middle-class (in the British sense), not upper-class.

 

Well worth reading, though!

Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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City

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As I’m now being cautious about posting new poems because it may rule them out for competitions, I’m starting to go back to much earlier stuff I haven’t previously posted. This was an early long poem sparked off by the New Orleans floods. I think it has flaws, but also some very good lines. I suppose the theme was how easily familiar life, order and organisation could crumble.

CITY

I

At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.

II

The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.

III

The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.

IV

Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

Now the mystery quotes. The last one (come on!) was from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“Storm coming? Brandish your weapons!”). Here’s another one that should be easy:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?