Book Review:The Third Testament, Christopher Galt

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Sorry for a long delay since I last posted. There’s no overwhelming excuse like death or complete demotivation. I’ve stopped posting poetry for publishing reasons, I mean to post and then don’t, I have no desire to share every seemingly significant moment with an almost random pond-dip of the world… and when I tried to post a while back, I got in a tangle with positioning an image in relation to the text.

Still, here I am.

An advantage of just picking up books at a library or bookstall, as opposed to a ruthless and systematic electronic hunt, is that you occasionally find things you never suspected.This book is one. The cover says it’s by Craig Russell writing as Christopher Galt, which is unusual for a start. If authors want to use a pen-name they usually don’t put their real name alongside. Some real identities are genuinely meant to be secret and others are not really meant to be secret, more a matter of marking out A1 type writing from A2 type, but the Russell/Galt thing intrigued me. Turns out Craig Russell is a well-known Scottish crime writer and Galt is his SF/thriller alias.

I was also a bit puzzled when, after reading the book, I started to research it online and found reference to an apparently different book, “Biblical”, by the same writer with apparently the same plot. Puzzlement ended: it is the same book, but re-issued and re-titled. “Biblical” was the old title.

OK: American Psychiatrist John Macbeth is working in Copenhagen on a project to create a super-computer that mimics the human mind. The idea is that once it’s up and running, scientists can generate psychological problems and test treatments, finding out a huge amount about how the mind works. One worry is that the computer will be self-aware and no-one quite knows how it will react. That introduces one big question and tension.

The next is apparently quite separate and more urgent. People all over the world start doing strange things. A party of employees of a cutting-edge computer games company jump off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Macbeth witnesses a student jumping from a roof, taking with him the priest who had been trying to talk him down. People have hallucinations. They suddenly stop in the street as if frozen, seeing things no-one else can see. A plane crashes trying to avoid a vast volcano that did exist in that place millions of years ago. John Macbeth, on a visit to Boston, shares with the whole population an experience of an earthquake that seems very real, that causes deaths through car crashes and so on, but that leaves no evidence of structural damage at all. The US President, someone with a dangerous psychological make-up, is seeing visions. Macbeth is put under pressure to join a US group working to understand what is happening, but refuses to leave the Copenhagen project.

Now I think for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, I’ll stop just here and come back next time with my thoughts on the book and just a little more on how the story develops.

 

 

 

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

Servants

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Another old poem from my collection – this time about fundamentalists. My apologies to the guy in the picture: I spent a long time looking for pictures to illustrate religious fundamentalism, but who’d have guessed it – all the pictures showed people who were identifiably Muslim! Now my contact with evangelising fundamentalists has mostly been with Christian ones because of my background.

They’re not all bad and my poem is about what is probably a particular sub-set, those who are determined to convert people and prepared to be dishonest and deceitful to do so (some undoubtedly wouldn’t do this) and who also are absolutely determined to appear to be happy because to cry or show depression would be to deny God’s power. The poem is an argument against this. In case it’s misunderstood, it absolutely is not an argument against Christianity or religion. I count myself religious and a Christian.

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SERVANTS

 

With fervent voice they praise the Lord;

The fundamentals of their choice

Wrenched from the Bible they enforce

And with a smile apply the sword.

 

They weave a web for passers-by

Of friendly chat and neighbour’s aid

Until the friendship is betrayed

And spider sucks another fly.

 

Into a gap they’ll pour such glue

No wind or wave will shift the wall;

Determined that they’ve heard the call

They’ll say they’re certain what is true.

 

They smile and sing and never cry;

Their outside dark has inside spread.

Who cannot laugh and cry is dead:

Knowing no deep, reach nothing high.  

Copyright Simon Banks 2014

Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.

THE LAST PROBLEM

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Well now, a lot of people will have read this one and many of those who haven’t will have heard of it. Some will be pretending to have read it. It’s a book with that kind of fame.

Margaret Atwood is a very, very good writer. There are passages of description that are truly poetic (thank God stripped down writing didn’t get to them). The story concerns a totalitarian dystopia created in the USA and Atwood is clever and subtle in describing how the system works and what it does to people. It’s a male-dominated system in which women are reduced to child-bearers and the organisers of child-bearing (although she has very little to say about what then happens to the children, so it’s not clear to me whether some of them have a wider mothering role). It’s been categorised, like Atwood, as feminist, and so it is, but only by a broad and liberal interpretation of the term. Men are victims of the system too.

One problem for me was that I found the opening passages incredibly depressing and there wasn’t much to relieve the gloom. As the story unfolded, the main character’s partial rebellion and the view of how the reality of the system differed from its public face made me less depressed, but don’t look for a happy ending. In fact the ending is extremely close to that of that other description of an almost powerless cog in a totalitarian system rebelling, George Orwell’s “1984”. That made me think back and realise the plot and organisation of the book also resemble 1984. I wonder if Atwood acknowledged any influence. She’s a much better fiction writer than Orwell, though, whose writing is often awkward.

 

Another useful comparison is with Suzy McKee Chalmas’ “Holdfast” series, another feminist science fiction creation of a masculine repressive dystopia in the USA. Her society is much more extreme in its degradation of women, so that it only works because the action is set very distant from our present time. She doesn’t have to say much about how people fell from A to B, though what she says is credible. Atwood’s creation, though, is young. The main character is in her early thirties and was a young adult when the change happened. That sets the author a much harder task of making things credible and I don’t think she entirely succeeds. For example, the U.S. system of government we know was functioning much as we know it (she mentions an environmental disaster involving nuclear power stations and the San Andreas Fault, but if that happened before the change, it doesn’t seem to have led to chaos or much change in the young woman’s life). Then the President is assassinated and the entire Congress killed, purportedly by Muslim terrorists. the army then takes over, or some kind of secret movement with a lot of support in the army.

I can’t buy this. The sudden removal of the entire Federal tier of U.S. government would leave a whole lot of functioning state governments with their own paramilitary resources and some of them would be perfectly capable of operating as independent countries. In a country as diverse and disorderly as the U.S., I don’t believe the coup could be that easy. Not all the armed forces would go along with it, for a start. Something like this would need a lot of preparation which could not all be in secret, a growth of sympathetic political movements and media comment for example. Admittedly the main character doesn’t seem to have been at all politically aware before the change, but surely even she would spot some trends. It would be more credible if set well in the future – when the society we know would have changed more – but the technology Atwood describes is pretty much that of when she wrote the story, so it’s current society that is overthrown.

OK, that’s the reaction of someone politically active and with a History degree. Once the monstrous regime is in place, though, its awful effectiveness is very convincingly described.

Well worth reading – but read something happier next!

 

 

 

Please, what is time?

This is supposed to be what a Japanese tourist at a main London railway station said to an elderly, studious-looking Englishman. The reply he received, of course, was,

“Sir, you have asked a most profound question.”

I don’t really try to answer that question, though I did read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, but I am fascinated by time and it shows both in my study of History and in my poetry. Here are three poems (already posted on this blog) in all of which time is an important element.

 

WALL

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

We knew the fish of the sea, we knew the soaring falcon,

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

 

BY THE GATE

 

The cloaked man waiting by the gate

Shivers in the warming day

The planned arrival’s running late

West wind drives the clouds away

 

The cloaked man taps his booted feet

Fumbles out a stained small case,

Stares at a photo; fingers beat

On holster; silence in his face

 

A movement down the uneven road

Pulls him to a straighter stance

The guards decant the expected load

Through the gate the groups advance

 

The gate is shut. He has to wait,

Hears a skylark in the sky.

The man’s gone through another gate

And like the load, begins to die.

 

 

NIGHTINGALE REMEMBERED

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

And lone and many, the nightingale’s notes rise.

 

The first, short poem is my reaction to an old wall. For sure the people who built it are long dead. Even its purpose is now unclear. But I wonder about those people and am aware that I share things with them.

 

The second is less about time. It’s about death, duty and conscience. The soldier or paramilitary policeman is not a bad man. He wants to do his duty and see his family again. But he’s supporting a mass murder, a group of unarmed people being executed. I was thinking about the Second World War and I imagined the guard as a German or Nazi ally, but even within the span of the technology described (a gun, a presumably motorised vehicle) this scene could be in many places and times: it’s a recurring tragedy.

I use simple language and understatement to convey both horror and the deadening of senses. The guard is surviving by desensitising himself to suffering: but there is a cost.

 

The third is very much about time. The opening quote is Keats, of course, from his “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats saw the Nightingale as immortal in contrast to his own short, doomed life. I remind myself that real Nightingales are individuals which live a lot shorter lives than Keats. But then with Keats I realise that even though the Nightingales are different, the same song was heard by humans in very different times and situations. I quote just two examples – the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae and the first Homo sapiens (or humans of any sort) to reach Europe. This brings me to remember other experiences that unite me with people long-dead (smelling salt water, reaching the top of a ridge and seeing a vast wilderness stretching out) and I have a sense of their continuing presence.

When I wrote this poem I’d been reading a lot of Tennyson and I suspect the line “Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste” is one I wouldn’t have written otherwise. The sense of it is very me but the inversion and sweep of the thing is more Tennyson. In the last line, the nightingale’s notes are “Lone and many”, recalling that this may be one bird, but it sings as others have sung.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Book Review: Ian Rankin, Watchman

Ian Rankin is well-known, in the UK at least, for his Inspector Rebus crime detection series. I’d heard of it but not read any. “Watchman” was his one foray into spy stories, written early in his career. Like many successful books by then little-known authors, it had a slow start but then took off big-time. It’s been widely praised.

The Watchman is a low-level British domestic intelligence operative, Miles Flint. His generally routine surveillance job goes spectacularly wrong and he suspects someone  on the inside is responsible. His suspicions make him a target.

This is the world of the 1980s, with IRA terrorist bomb-explosions in Britain and an increasingly dirty undercover war in Ireland.

So far, so good. It’s cleverly-planned and increasingly fast-paced. But I had a problem: while Flint was in danger from very early on, I was halfway through the book before I cared what happened to him. He’s certainly not a cardboard-cut-out figure – a university graduate happy to stagnate in a junior position, a good father whose marriage is fading away, a Scot in London, an enthusiastic student of beetles. But the people I know who are so completely and uncomplainingly without ambition live life to the full and are full of enjoyment of a wide range of things including pleasures and personal relationships. The Miles Flint we’re introduced to doesn’t seem to enjoy life more than mildly and his only really close relationship is with his often absent student son. I can’t quite work out what makes him tick. He’s said to have been short-tempered and occasionally violent as a student, but hasn’t been like that for many years (till danger makes violence seem necessary). Where did that violence come from and where has it gone to? For me it doesn’t quite add up.

I begin to care when Flint’s danger becomes much greater and he is forced into an uneasy alliance with an IRA man, Collins, after someone sets them both up to be killed. I find the haunted Collins’ moods very credible, but he’s supposed to have been a Protestant paramilitary who switched sides without a bribe, without blackmail and without having been a double agent. I can’t quite believe that, either for the character Rankin draws or for Ireland at the time: I may be wrong, but I doubt if the IRA would ever have trusted him enough to use him regularly and the reaction of his “Loyalist” former comrades would have been to hunt him down, something that clearly hasn’t happened and that doesn’t seem to worry him.

That said, it’s exciting, the action is credible and the writing is more than competent.

The Dead Soldier

This poem was inspired by British First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, killed in action in 1918. I originally put “To Isaac Rosenberg” under the title, but removed it because it would suggest the dead soldier WAS Isaac Rosenberg, and the circumstances of the soldier’s death in this poem do not match Rosenberg’s.

 

THE DEAD SOLDIER

 

Green grows the grass where died my friend,

Darkly shade the trees

Over the hill you sought, my friend,

Where you’d have seen the seas.

 

Among the rest you lie, my friend,

With language, love and shape;

They’re buried when you die, my friend,

And bitter grows the grape.

 

The trees have tumbled down, my friend,

The blood runs down the hill.

They’ve fought another fight, my friend,

The triumph of the Will.

 

The breeze comes off the sea, my friend,

The trees will rise and spread.

The air will make us free, my friend.

Shall it raise the dead?

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Fear

A poem about group fear and what it brings.

 

FEAR

 

Fear came into the town an hour before the dawn

He padded round and from his bag

He drew the paint, he drew the bloodshot rag

He painted signs and spoke to sleep

And raised the ancient flag.

 

The people of the town awoke

Before their windows hammered boards

They checked their locks and fixed the masks

They’d kept under their summer wear

And all streamed out in heavy coats

To the old market square

 

They broke the tables of the foe

Who brought the infection of strange love

They cracked the trestles, hanged the one

And drove the rest to a cherished cave

And we were calm again

But in the wood a mad girl

Began to rave of snow and sun.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Auschwitz (complete this time)

I realised I’d managed to post the first two parts of my poem about Auschwitz without the third. So here it is again complete:

 

AUSCHWITZ

 

ON THE WAVES

 

Have you seen them bobbing on the waves,

The bright baby clothes and treasured old pan,

Flask, serviceable shoes and the old soldier’s

False leg?

They were dropped like confetti when the great grave

Opened and closed

The sea will not take them.

 

Sinking not below the unforgiving surface

They will be stranded some time on a shore

Among the cuttlefish and aerosols

For the beachcombing man and his dog to wonder on,

To root, make seed.

 

PEOPLE

 

Thousands of faces,

Most eyes glazed, defeated,

A few determined, defiant,

Hair cut short

Eyes too big, seeing.

People.

 

But on the regimented route

Other blank faces file in unison

Beneath the protecting helmets, taking pride

From a lack of holy tears and nightmares

Somewhere a child laughs from a fine house

What have you made,

People?

 

CALM

 

On the Sargasso Sea of humans

Searching for an invisible stream

An old man rows a leaky boat

Watching the fishes like confetti shifting

Imagining, magician,

Drowned faces smiling.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012