Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans


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.

T-shirts, T and poetry

Friends of the Earth inform me that it takes the amount of water to manufacture one t-shirt that would be needed to make 15,600 cups of tea. A thought-provoking statistic – but straight away, I start wondering if that’s why they’re called t-shirts. Or is tea named after tea shirts? Did British colonial officials once relax on the verandah having changed into a tea shirt to drink tea?


Now I take t-shirts seriously, like them. I have quite a collection, many commemorating somewhere I’ve been (Georgia, Fair Isle Bird Observatory, the most south-westerly pub in England – The Saracen’s Head, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly – plus one printed with my own wording, “Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”).

Towards the end of a walking holiday, though, the dirty clothes do mount up and of course are dead weight to carry. Working on that FOE statistic, maybe I could convert a small fragment of a dirty, old t-shirt into cups of tea?

By the way, that personalised wording refers to a favourite snippet from my history reading. During the Commonwealth period when we were between kings, the radical Leveller group had fallen out with Oliver Cromwell, but one of their number, a Major John Wildman, had defected to Cromwell. His former comrades put out a pamphlet attacking him. You can imagine what this would be like today – a pamphlet or blog post from a far left group attacking someone who’d abandoned them. The Leveller pamphlet read,

“There was a great stone, and it fell in the sea, and it gave a great PLOP. Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”


Incidentally, I was at a reading last night by performance poet Luke Wright. I’d seen two of his poems before and thought one brilliant and the other rubbish, but this was all good. Few performance political poets have such subtlety and compassion, plenty of passion but nothing of bludgeoning you into assent.

Two short poems about water

Or are they?



When the Sahara was green this was a river.
The statues of wonderful Alexandria
Stare in salt water.
Under the Black Sea are valleys,
Flooded settlements.
I have seen the lost rivers of live Mars.
Humans will end, and the Earth that made them.
I sense the rise of new rivers.


The dogs on the narrow beach race or pad
The dog-walkers have their dogs to take them for walks
I wear binoculars round my neck
That also is a justification.

The new sun glints on wave-crests and shallow still water
The sound of the waves is old.


I think I’ll leave those for now without comment or explanation and come back to talk a bit about them.

Lands End

Poems from Wales

I’m a week back from a week walking a section of the Wales Coast Path, which now goes all round the coast of Wales from the northernmost point of the English border to the southernmost, taking in the spectacular coastlines of the North-wet and South-west corners of mainland Wales.




As you can see from the picture above, Welsh people are characteristically black with round heads and one arm thicker than the other.


The section I did this time was between Fishguard (Abergwaun) and Aberystwyth. This is a fantastically beautiful section, mostly cliffy and tough walking because of many little streams that reach the sea directly through deep gulleys (steep down, steep up).


So hold on – this is a poetry blog. Well, I usually manage to write something on such holidays and these three were all written while killing time in Llanrhystud village. Two relate obviously to Wales, the other less so. One is definitely a sonnet and another arguably an aberrant sonnet.



Those who returned to the earth left stone often carven
In the language of their ancestors, beloved daughter, husband;
The postmaster, a position held with pride,
Succeeded to the honour by his brother.
The dates – 1890, 1908 –
Moving blindly with precision towards horror and Flanders.

Now the church is quiet, its simplicity startling;
Sheep graze around; a sign advises visitors
Not to leave the door open for fear of birds being trapped.
The hand-lettered signs say “God is Love”, “Christ is Risen”.


The low hills, whether clothed in oaks or sheep,
Always looked down on the village where merchants’ trail,
The track of drover and pilgrim, strove to keep
The low route over rivers while the winds brought sail
And strange news travelled fast with brooch and salt;
Babies were born, made some mark and grew old,
And dying, left some memory of a fault
Or of a flame of passion now death cold.
Their world was overturned, yet some hung hard
Through war and coming in and going out,
Indifference replacing faith and doubt
And left a hint of love and love long scarred.


We were brought up that God had made the land,
And all that breathed or rooted, for our kind.
We took God at his word and by our hand
The woods were felled and the high hills were mined.
We drained the marshes to extend the fields
So we could do God’s will and multiply.
No more contentment came from growing yields;
When birds fell silent we did not ask why.
Then wise men came who spoke of Reason’s rule,
Of laws of science that must drive our thought.
Who did not multiply was just a fool,
To risk life for a stranger, a fool’s sport.
But here’s the truth they smudged and sneered and fought:
We’re but a part, our task the land’s renewal.


Enough for now. Next time, perhaps, the best and the worst of William Carlos Williams.


Harmony of the Spheres


This is an old poem of mine – my one and only attempt at a sonnet. The subject is the medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, a timeless universe centred on the Earth, with incorruptible heavenly bodies contrasted with death and decay among us and heavenly music.


They thought the stars shone from a sphere

Where nothing changed, death was unknown,

Eternal calm looked down on fear,

Lust, greed and rotting flesh and bone.

The stars were strung like diamond beads

On heavenly secrets’ velvet drape

But we below could only dream

Through pictures, words and creeds

How music gave the world its shape

And reeled in time’s chaotic stream.

Now this old picture is a wreck

And astronauts have not picked up

Music on a computer check

Or God’s blood in a plastic cup,

Now that we’ve learnt that change is good

And life is long, and pleasure stays,

We do not need the crystal spheres.

Correctly understood

A yearning for that world betrays

A fear of life, a life of fears.

We know they lived in fear and pain.

Who would not swap the Holy Grail

For wiping out a smallpox strain?

Heaven’s a light along a trail

And not a warlord’s massive tower.

Our flesh is not a shameful thing.

But when we let the old boat go

And slip from place and hour,

Perhaps the stars will seem to sing,

Perhaps the stars will seem to grow.

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


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:




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.



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.


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.


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.


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?

Book Review: Tom McCarthy – “C”

ImageApparently C is a programming language. That may be relevant. Tom McCarthy’s novel starts weirdly well with a doctor hitching a ride on a cart carrying copper wire in order to visit a woman in labour. The father turns out to be much more interested in the copper wire than in his impending offspring. The house is old, rambling and confusing in layout. This could go all sorts of ways, the reader thinks.

The book covers the entire life of the baby about to be born. Young Serge, born in the dying years of the 19th century in southern England, grows up in a strange household. His father is a deaf school headmaster and eccentric inventor fascinated by new means of communication. His mother hardly features at all (why?). His elder sister is a sadistic scientific genius who kills herself for reasons not very clear. Serge suffers from ill-health as a boy, shares his father’s fascination with radio, becomes an observer in a First World War fighting aircraft and is then a prisoner of war, returning to civilian life, experiencing spiritualism and drugs, only to die in Egypt soon after.

The strangeness of the main characters and of the world they’re in (instance the attitudes of the fliers to death and of British intelligence in Egypt to everyone else on the planet) are well conveyed. There are passages of description, especially in the Royal Flying Corps chapters, which are vivid and very well done indeed. But there is a hole in the book. I found until nearly the end that I did not care what happened to Serge. Why? Because he didn’t seem to care at all about what happened to anyone else or if he hmself lived. His sister’s death doesn’t seem to provoke any emotions at all. He was totally indifferent to deaths of fellow-flyers in training and in war. He shot up manned German observation balloons not to try to win the war or out of anger, but because it was fun and fascinating. Narrowly escaping being executed on the last day of the war, he feels cheated and has no thought for his comrade who was about to die and wanted to live. Frankly, he seems to be a bit of a monster.

My unease about the book is that I’m not sure Tom McCarthy realises what a wasteland is in his main character. There are suggestions that the book is a kind of prediction of how humanity was developing, but very few people today are emotionless and disconnected like that. The SS cultivated being above emotions of sympathy or revulsion at the suffering of people they corralled and killed, but even they generally cared about their comrades.

When Serge is angry at a spiritualist fake, and unmasks the deception, it seems strange. Where has that emotion, that anger at deceit, come from? It’s the first emotion he’s displayed. His relations with women seem just as blank-faced and emotionless.

His fever and delirium in his final days are well described. But whether there is any significance in where and how he dies, I just don’t know.


My lines for today are (rather a lot of lines, but it’s an example of the impact being from the whole, and the lines I’d most want to quote are well-separated by others).

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Well, that really shouldn’t be difficult. Still, here’s a clue:


Wonderful History

One more post on History before I get back to the poetry!

Last time I set out some common arguments against spending time on History:

History is boring.
Whenever someone says something is “boring”, they’re merely saying “this doesn’t interest ME”. So “I’m not interested in History because it’s boring” is not a powerful argument. However, it’s a shame many people have come away from school thinking History is boring. I’m not going to blame the teachers, though a few may lack passion for the subject. I’ll just point to how many well-watched TV programmes are about historical events (such as Hitler’s rise to power) or rework and fictionalise historical events (such as the Jack the Ripper murders) or use and convey historical understanding (such as family history programmes like the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?”).

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

So how are you going to predict the future if you have no idea how things change over time?

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

Apart from the point that people are not uninteresting because they’re dead (or white, or male, or royal even), History isn’t just about a long list of kings, queens or presidents. History basically is the study of whatever in the past we think is important – so take your pick. The history of the impact of the printing press or of the Black Death is not mainly about rulers.

It won’t help you get a job.

Unfortunately there’s some truth in this, more in some countries than others. But a good degree from a highly-rated university isn’t worthless because it’s in an unpopular subject – it’s just less saleable than some. What’s clear to me is that History can help you DO many jobs, and not just History Teacher.

Consider: History teaches you a huge amount about human motivation and the impact people’s actions have over time. It teaches you how major changes can occur almost unnoticed. It teaches you to ask of someone’s account or presentation not only “Is this factually true?” but “What is this person’s angle? What does he or she want others to believe?”. It teaches you how different other people, other societies, can be. Where historical facts are vastly numerous, as with most 20th century History, it teaches you how to select and marshal facts in a coherent argument. Where factual information is sparse, as with the 5th to 8th centuries AD in Western Europe, it teaches you how to read between the lines.

It’s propaganda.

Anything open to argument can be propaganda and it’s true that in totalitarian societies, history is written to support the rulers. Deeply patriotic or nationalistic historians write history that glosses over cruelties and injustices made by their beloved country and unduly stress its positive characteristics. A Catholic historian (to take just one example from the field of religion) is unlikely to argue that the papal claim to succession from St Peter is bogus even if he or she has come on evidence that might point that wayand an anticlerical atheist is quite likely to underestimate the church’s role in, shall we say, limiting the oppression of conquered peoples. But history is international and it gets harder and harder to wall out the voices undermining the propaganda. History teaches us to question propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

This is a bit like “it’s boring”. There’s no answer because it’s not really saying anything. If you thought History was important or interesting, but saw it was unfashionable, what should you do? If you always think unfashionable things are uninteresting or unimportant, what does that say about you?

In any case, while History in schools and at university has declined, there’s more and more History on TV.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

Well, yes, you can make a case for all subjects, but isn’t your main language advanced by using it to read and write about History, and isn’t the use of statistics to illustrate points in History practical Maths teaching? The same sort of argument applies to computers, though not to sport unless you count vigorous disputes between academics who don’t like one another.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

If it weren’t for History, we’d have forgotten who Ford was. History is full of examples of the sort of hubris Ford displayed as soon as his attention shifted from making cars. History analyses what the effects of Ford’s business success and production methods were.


So the arguments FOR? I listed a few popular ones.


We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

Well, yes, except nation, country and state are not the same. It makes sense for all citizens, whether born there or not, to know something of the origins of the place and society they live in. BUT with this sort of history there are two big risks – that the course of events that could have gone very differently is made to seem inevitable; and that the story of the nation or state is sanitised so the best is stressed and the worst is ignored or belittled. I’d also argue that British history for Britons (or American for Americans or Indian for Indians) is not enough: we should come to understand something about the history of a different place and people.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

“Patriotic” history can do this, and understanding the roots of a national culture and identity is important. But if the AIM of history teaching is to promote a national identity, it becomes propaganda and inevitably lies if only by omission. For example, the “myth” of Dunkirk (not actually a myth, as it actually happened) is important to at least some people’s sense of Britishness – but how many people know the evacuation would have been far less successful without a French army fighting to hold off the Germans while the British evacuated? It wasn’t for nothing that Churchill sent back the Navy for one more night to get the French off too.

History repeats itself.

Up to a point it does. It is useful to be able to recognise in a situation something that has happened before. But as with any patterning and classification by our minds, we often get it wrong. It isn’t only generals who are always fighting the last war.  But maybe that’s a good example of how history does repeat itself. Over and over again we apply the lessons from the last big mistake too literally.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

Marxists think this and so do many religious people. Certainly you can see great trends in history, but are they really unavoidable?

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Nowadays historians generally hold back from passing moral judgements, but this is relatively new. Ideologies clearly do affect how historians write history, both in influencing judgements on the effectiveness or benefits of something and in influencing what we think is important. As History is the study of WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT in the past, your values and structure of belief clearly must influence what you think noteworthy and what you stress. But falsify the facts and you’ll be rightly challenged.

Now what is missing from these arguments?

Well, understanding the complexity and variety of human motivation and mindsets. Understanding just how DIFFERENT humans can be from our own society (which is why the history of your own country is not enough). A sympathetic understanding: ultimately statistics and ruins can take you so far, but you need to apply your own human experience and get into the mind of someone very different in order to understand actions and cultures that seem very strange to us.

And that’s close to literature, even to poetry. History is a sort of science fiction, but based on truth.