Mason, Alan: The Magazine (January)

This evening we were to be honoured by the attendance of the author himself.  Eight o’clock came and went.  Where was he?  Should we begin our confabulation without him?  A text message arrived.  He had got onto the wrong bus.  As a newcomer to Edinburgh (arriving late in the 20th century, provenance Glasgow), he had confused his bus routes.

Once Mr Mason had arrived and settled in, we buckled down to the business of the evening, which was to explore the origins and hinterland of his fascinating and unusual project ‘The Magazine’.  This presents itself as a late nineteenth century monthly periodical, with contributors offering stories and poems, and the editorial staff providing articles and responses to readers’ letters.  It is richly illustrated by surreal (but not Surrealist) imagery.

In reality, these monthly numbers are the work of Alan Mason alone, as writer and illustrator, and of Barrie Tullett as graphic designer and director of the Caseroom Press. 

We were discussing the ‘January’ number, the result of several years’ work.  The ‘February’ and ‘March’ issues have also now been given to the world, with the remaining monthly volumes, and one ‘extra’, still to be completed.  Alan estimated that he was about 60% through the task.

The host for the evening, a long time colleague of the author as a fellow lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, explained why he had chosen ‘The Magazine’.  He had enjoyed its uniqueness, the dense and evocative writing -which was full of humour and original imagery and turns of phrase – and the intriguing illustrations.

The following, in no particular order, is a flavour of the remarks made by the group and the author:

It was noted that a favourite literary device employed was the use of words to do double duty – often expressing both a physical and a metaphorical meaning.  Two brief examples:

“His voice, unlike his credit, carried to the bar” and “Strickland took his hat and his leave”.

It was remarked that it was nice sometimes to leave things hanging, and that the monthly numbers device facilitated a gap between setting things in motion and their eventual resolution.  Of course in practice the intervals between issues will be considerably longer than one month, and therefore some re-reading will be desirable to follow the threads of the narratives.  The author explained that these narratives would gradually reveal themselves to be germane to the narratives of their fictional writers and of the whole publication itself.  It would become apparent that it was a financially failing publication, and that an overarching theme of the narrative content would be that of failure, both artistic and financial.  The primary story was of the editorial staff themselves, who in the January issue are largely ‘off screen’, but whose presence will become more noticeable as the issues proceed.

The uniqueness of the project was acknowledged, but we engaged in some discussion of influences, drawing on sources as varied as Monty Python, Victorian magazines such as Blackwoods and The Strand, ‘B’ movies such as westerns, and James Joyce. 

Like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, ‘The Magazine’ needs two or three close readings to extract all its meaning.  The author remarked that Joyce was inspirational, and that the multiplicity of voices in ‘Ulysses’ could be emulated in some degree not only by the fictional cast of authors of ‘The Magazine’ but also due to the fact that as he was writing it over a period of years, he himself was evolving as a writer and thus developing different ‘voices’.  He remarked also that in the writing process there comes a point where the work itself starts to talk to the writer, and that it was necessary to be open to new directions that arise in this way.

‘The Dashing of Hope’ was admired, with its strong images of sailing ships and the sea, and its evocation of an era when the sciences, philosophy and the arts were not delineated and demarcated as they are today.  It is a voyage of exploration in which it is hoped that a solar eclipse will be ‘scientifically’ observed, but the cloudy sky obscures it.  It is funny, has sly bawdy allusions, and is ultimately about failure – again!

A query about the origins of Alan’s skills in writing led us to discuss further the nature of compartmentalisation in today’s educational system.  Alan referred to how artists in past eras would undertake the ‘grand tour’,  acquiring knowledge of techniques and cultures in a sponge-like fashion.  He felt that the hinterland of today’s students was less rich, and the host agreed, venturing to remark that a grounding in the history of an art form, and a breadth of cultural experience generally, were excellent springboards for a young artist.  Alan remarked on the differences between film-making (he teaches Animation) and writing, and commented that he finds writing more liberating.

We talked a little about the female characters in ‘The Magazine’, and especially the article ‘About the House’, in which misogyny is evidenced by the (fictional) author through the unusual medium of furniture.

We discussed the two poems in the number, and admired the command of rhythm that was evident.  Alan talked about the importance of rhythm in writing generally.  He also offered the interesting notion of writing as being like creating a compost heap.  Eventually a flower will bloom at the top, and the rubbish beneath can be discarded.  (Not quite sure if that leaves the flower hovering in mid air…)

Further glimmerings from our wide-ranging discussion:

Imagery vivid, narrative elusive.

Not surrealist, and not stream-of-consciousness.

How seriously is it to be taken?  Is it parody?  Can it be labelled ‘post-modern’?

Contemporary artistic practice tends towards the ‘conceptual’.  Does that bring in more of the public than the ‘old masters’?  What do people want from art?  To be made to think?

Formatting and layout of the work was much admired.

The coincidence of the launch today of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ (aka ‘The David Attenborough’) with the subject matter of ‘The Dashing of Hope’ was noted (two sturdily reinforced ships heading for polar waters).

As can be deduced from the above fragments, the discussion was wide-ranging and enjoyable, and the author gave us many insights into his writing process and the evolution of the project.  We look forward to the day when all thirteen numbers of ‘The Magazine’ can be read at a (long) sitting, and the overarching architecture of the piece can be discerned in all its glory!

Rogers, Douglas: Two Weeks in November

Seven members of the group gathered on a pleasant August evening, some arriving slightly breathless from the exertions of climbing a couple of flights of stairs to the host’s grand flat.

The book had been headlined as “The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe.” Our proposer had been inspired to read more after listening to 2 episodes of the book on BBC 4’s “Book of the Week”. Having been duly captivated by the book he felt it worthy of our analysis.

The author had been born in Umtali, Rhodesia in 1968 to Lyn, a lawyer and Rosalind a drama teacher. He grew up on heavily fortified chicken and grape farms during the Rhodesian Bush War. He was schooled in Rhodesia and graduated with a degree in journalism in Rhodes University, South Africa. Following newspaper and radio assignments in Johannesburg he moved to London in 1994  and wrote feature and travel articles for several broadsheets. He settled in the USA in 2003 and has contributed to many of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers. In 2009 he published “The Last Resort: a Memoir of Zimbabwe” to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at the Gothan Writers Workshop.

The title of the book seemed to be appropriate as Britain could well be facing difficult times during our imminent departure from the EU at the end of October. The last two weeks of October could well prove to be of major significance for our future on these islands.

There was a long discussion about how Africa, despite its vast natural resources seems to remain in the doldrums. One member who had visited Africa several times and had met a good number of top Africans, found them to be rational and deeply intellectual. But corruption amongst leaders and expensive local wars prevented proper investment in infrastructure and distribution of wealth to the masses.

Why had Africa not thrived as much as other continents? Historically, factors such as Africa’s challenging geography prevented easy trade routes being established. There seemed to be a different work ethic compared to northern and far eastern countries. There was a theory that the short growing season in northern Europe led to greater efforts to produce food efficiently whilst in Africa there wasn’t that pressure.

Comment was made on Britain’s support of corrupt regimes who were of commercial or strategic use to us and of bestowing honours on their leaders. We had a habit of conveniently ignoring misdemeanours carried out by these administrations if it suited us. We were reminded that President Mugabe had been given an honorary degree by Edinburgh University in 1984 but this was eventually revoked after years of campaigning about his poor human rights record.

Eventually, after 45 minutes of general discussion about Africa, the group were focussed on discussing the book.

There was general agreement that the journalistic style of writing wasn’t very agreeable. Reading the book was like reading a journalist’s notebook and the narrative was poor. There was a huge cast of characters, many with multiple names.  

The story did have some exciting episodes, particularly ED’s attempts to cross the border into Mozambique, the dash to retrieve his briefcase from the border post and the highly professional neutralisation of the Police Support Unit by 1 Para special forces team. Some felt that some of the scenes beggared belief and questioned that the actions of Ellis, Kasper, Angel, Horse and Gabriel played such a major role in the eventual resignation of Mugabe.

The book did however effectively convey the chaotic nature of events, which was probably quite authentic. The influence of social media, rallying support for the march, was impressive and a modern day phenomenon. There were several hints that the Chinese might well have had some part to play in the coup. Whoever had China on their side would win. It seemed that it was no coincidence that General Chiwenga had been in China prior to his return to Zimbabwe to take control of the bloodless coup. He claims that he had no immediate aspirations to be President but unsurprisingly now sits as Vice President. The author paraphrases Milton Friedman’s statement “the important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing”. He claims that on the 18th November 2017, the wrong people, the Zimbabwean military, the country’s war veterans and elements of ZANU-PF actually did the right thing.

Rogers quotes Nelson Chamisa, President of the Movement for Democratic Change as saying “what is the point in partnering with the new regime. They are still ZANU-PF. Same bus, different driver”

For a book that purported to have been impeccably researched, there were no references. For some purists in the group, even although the book is published in the UK, the American spellings of whiskey, color and sulfur was irritating. Overall, most thought the book worthy of just about 3 stars as the author had managed to unearth some sensitive information about a very secretive operation. The book certainly stimulated a good deal of discussion.

One member of the group had earlier circulated an article about modern day Zimbabwe. Little seems to have changed for the average Zimbabwe citizen since Mugabe’s resignation. There are shortages of fuel and rioting and beatings are commonplace leading to some deaths. Internet services are suspended and Twitter is locked down. It comments that Zimbabwe needn’t be poor with its copious minerals, an educated and ambitious population and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. However, the country “is being looted by its government.” Zimbabwe was once regarded as the “breadbasket of Africa” but now is a “basket case.”

Was it the talk of food that spurred our host into offering coffee? This was duly produced accompanied by a plate groaning with delicious “brownies”.

Thus fortified, the conversation moved on to our current situation in the UK.  Many are on protest marches throughout the country. Politicians appear to be acting for themselves or their political party rather than thinking of the good of the nation. It’s not just Africa that has its problems. We have our own concerns much nearer to home and we wait with some trepidation what will happen with our two weeks in October and beyond.

Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture

Seven of us were there on a warm evening, and all had warm feelings about Barry’s novel – feelings shared in emails by some who couldn’t come. The proposer, born in Ireland, spoke of the richness of Irish literature, plays, poetry and fiction. Just for fiction, following older masters such as Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, there were such figures as William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnstone, John McGahern,– and in the next generation John Banville, Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry.

     Barry was born in Dublin in 1955 and educated in that city, taking a degree at Trinity College. He has been a very successful playwright (though none of us had seen his plays), and a multi-prize-winning novelist (The Secret Scripture won both the Costa and the James Tait Black). His novels are mostly grouped in cycles about two families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. Barry’s latest – and hugely impressive – novel, Days without End, belongs to the McNulty group, as does our novel, though only tangentially, through the tragic marriage of the heroine to a McNulty and her fraught relations with all the family.

     Critics have gone into raptures at the quality of Barry’s writing (‘beautiful prose’, ‘exquisitely written’) and the group went along with this, picking out striking turns of phrase, but also the subtle presentation of moods and feelings. There was some discussion of what seemed like a particularly Irish ability to write powerful and inventive English. Just the gift of the gab, maybe, or the outsider situation of Ireland in relation to dominating neighbour – one member of the group drew a parallel with the richness of Indian writing in English.

    We did wonder if the writing mightn’t be too ‘beautiful’ for the two narrators whose stories make up the novel, respectively a hundred-year-old woman and a self-condemning psychiatrist. It was noted that Roseanne seems chaotic in her life but composed in her writing (her text is supposed to be rapidly concealed under floorboards, quite a feat for such an old person). It could also be argued that the two narrative voices are not distinct enough (though [spoiler] the narrators turn out to be closely related). But on the whole we were happy with this, admiring such touches as the hammers and feathers that come into the two differing accounts of Roseanne’s father’s death.

     Much of the discussion was about these different versions of the past, both personal and political. None of the versions presented in the novel trumps all the rest – everyone is seen as struggling to catch hold of an elusive past. Memory is unreliable, and so by implication is history. ‘Fake news’ reared its ugly head here – which led to talk of Brexit and the odd ways it’s related to the Irish problems which fill this novel. It’s not a history book, but it doesn’t take too much for granted, though most of us didn’t know much about the Irish blueshirts, The story of Roseanne is linked through all sorts of threads with the tragic history of Ireland in the years following the Treaty and Partition – and although at the end there seems to be a sort of reconciliation, a willingness to bury the past maybe, more recent events (the novel was published in 2008) make you wonder how much of this is really dead and buried. It certainly continues to provide rich material for novelists.

     We admired Barry’s generosity to different points of view. It’s remarkable that this male author tries to adopt the voice and point of view of a 100-year-old woman living in an asylum. Roseanne is not one to condemn, nor is Barry. Even the villainous Father Gaunt, representative of the unforgiving Church, is given some human touches – though generally the Church doesn’t come well out of this book. In fact there’s sympathy for almost all the characters, however unpleasant some of their doings may be – the most sympathetic being the victims, Roseanne of course, but also the mysterious Eneas McNulty, the romantic republican John Lavelle, his son Seanin (John Kane), and even the deeply ambiguous figure of Roseanne’s father. One member wondered why we are so much drawn to these figures in fiction who make a mess of their lives –the excessively passive acceptance of her fate by Roseanne and the self-doubt and self-accusation of Dr Grene.

    One point some members were doubtful about was the way in which the two apparently different stories are brought together at the end. Too good to be true? But Barry was praised for avoiding the obvious recognition scene that apparently figures in the film version of the novel (none of us had seen the film). A parallel was made with the coincidences in Dr Zhivago – not exactly true to life but carrying a weight of meaning.

   To sum up – a striking unanimity in favour of the novel, and a desire to read more, to follow up some of the other McNultys – not to mention the Dunnes.

Perlman, Elliot: Seven Types of Ambiguity

“I don’t know how it came out so long – I just started writing and it came out like that”. No this wasn’t the author speaking but one of own members talking of an article he had written.

SEVEN Types of Ambiguity is in excess of SIX hundred pages, FIVE members gathered to discuss the book, but only FOUR managed to complete the course and get the souvenir T-shirt. TWO bottles of finest bitter were on hand to sustain the SINGLE blogger, yours truly.

The proposer introduced the book as a gift from his Australian sister-in-law. Elliot Perlman is an Australian, post-grunge (!) author and barrister. Nevermind, it is still worth a look. He informed us that in this context, “Grunge” refers to an “Australian literary genre concerned with dissatisfied and disenfranchised young people living in suburban or inner-city surroundings typically written by “new, young authors” who examined “gritty, dirty, real existences”, of lower-income young people, whose lives revolve around a nihilistic pursuit of casual sex, recreational drug use and alcohol which are used to escape boredom”. This may relate to some extent to the 80/90s Seattle rock scene, but the characters in STOA were far from penniless and I fear the book group members were far beyond their days of post-nihilistic pursuit, but hey-ho, on we go.

The proposer found the characters fascinating, believable and beautifully interlocked. The writing was clear, clever (with many interesting allusions), descriptive and amusing. He particularly enjoyed the “Shakespearian” resume making the long read well worthwhile.   The work “condemns the economic rationalism that destroys the humanity of ordinary people when they are confronted with unemployment and poverty”, to quote AusLit and many other secondary sources. You didn’t read it here first! The book has been well received, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary award in 2004. A six-part series based on Seven Types of Ambiguity was screened on ABC Television in 2017.

The title derives from the earlier work on ambiguity in poetry by the literary critic William Empson – and indeed is the name of the dog owned by Simon, the principal character in Perlman’s book. Few knew of Empson’s book, but one who had studied it as part of a literature course ventured a very poor opinion of the work. Perlman’s book revolves about the tangled relationships between the obsessive Simon who still carries a torch for Anna, his student girlfriend, now married to Joe, a dealer in stocks and shares who has formed a partnership with Mitch, a financial analyst. Add to this web Angela or Angelique, the prostitute with the heart of gold, and the psychiatrist, Dr Klima, who each provide mental and/or physical massage with a certain disdain for the rules of the game. Perhaps Dr Klima is just too empathetic for both his and his client’s good, and his eventual suicide is as a result of this. Another victim of these events is Sam, Anna’s child, who is kidnapped by Simon in a possibly, irrational act, and Rachel who plays the role of Fortinbras to Simon’s Hamlet and inherits the sorry kingdom from the elder characters.

Writing from afar, an absent member (who listened to rather than read the book) stated that despite its length, complexity and repetition, he really enjoyed it, written (narrated?) in clear and easy language. There’s a huge amount of information on relationships but there are many interesting stories, which he probably has been saving for a massive tome. For example, the complex sub-plots on share dealing with managed care in the health sector, and of card counting to beat the casino, and even the court room drama  that resulted from the complicated relationships could be considered as tangential, but opinions within the group differed on this.

We discussed the believability and motivation of the characters. One member suggested that the central flaw in the characters and indeed the book was the lack of meaningful life goals, and the struggle to achieve such goals, in which lies contentment. Not so, said another, the driving force is the pursuit of money and material wealth, certainly in the case of Joe and Mitch, who like to enjoy fast cars and prostitutes. In contrast, Anna’s father is painted as a more dogmatic personality, with fixed morals and ideas. There was a discussion of the courtroom drama, considered by some as central to the plot, although others wondered at Anna’s behaviour in letting the trial proceed at all. The text of the book seems to suggest that Anna’s change of testimony within the trial is clever, rational and pre-conceived but this does not really fit her previous behaviour. In taking the child, was Simon being protective, knowing the state of the marriage from conversations with Angelique, or was this an understandable, irrational act from a disturbed individual? This book does not lend itself to easy answers.  Everyone seems to be dysfunctional.

For some of our number who knew Australia well, there was disappointment that the book had no sense of place; it could be set anywhere, and some didn’t realise where until the text was well advanced. Does it matter? At this point someone noted that Australia had the second highest CO2 emission level per capita anywhere on the planet! The author doesn’t really care about such issues, one suspects, nor do his characters. Alas, the author is probably not wrong to emphasise this fixation on relationships when many are concerned today more that they are missing out on the latest influencer-led obsession, but can one not regret this? Another pointed out that the book contains a rant about globalisation, understandable from an Australian perspective, and that the book was an accurate portrayal of how people behave and what motivates them.

So there was much to discuss and much to disagree upon. However, we were unanimous in asserting it was too long! Thinking of his time in the civil service, one reminded us he was advised to elucidate internally and obfuscate externally. Perhaps like Churchill, Empson was apologising for writing a long book because he didn’t have time to write a short one. We were all aware of the need to curtail, be brief and to edit one’s text. Did the author take advice from an editor, who might have made it shorter? A novelist amongst us noted that more prestigious authors tended to have more control over their manuscripts, as editors dare not offend. A recent series of popular books on schoolboy wizardry was mentioned. Initially engaged, another member lost all sympathy with the characters as the book progressed.

To summarise, of the 5+1 contributors to the discussion, there was a majority who would recommend the book, but not universal approbation. We agreed that the book was clearly meant to be the Magnum Opus (“many incarnations”), but perhaps it was just too “clever”, that the characters do not have unique voices – they are mouthpieces for the author’s view. Overall, we would give four stars, if we gave ratings, but we don’t, so we won’t.

Austen, Jane: Persuasion

It had been raining for two days solid. Was this the reason for such a good attendance at our discussion? – this week there were no outdoor distractions such as golf, gardening or Munro-bagging, due to the dreadful weather. Or was it simply the attraction of Jane Austen? 

Ten of us filled the room, with three squeezed onto one sofa. The only absent member, an admirer of Austen, had sent two longish e-mails from the battlefields of France.

Our host reminded us that Austen died over 200 years ago: July 1817, probably of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  To mark the date, there had been an exhibitionWhich Jane Austen? at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, opened by none other than Scottish author Ali Smith, whose book Autumn we were reading last year. To quote Smith, we should “celebrate above all Jane Austen’s merry, merciful, merciless, versatile eye, ……her unparalleled understanding of the human need for and love not just of narrative, but its structural workings and fulfilments”. 

Some of us confessed to never having read Jane Austen’s novels whilst others had studied them at degree level, and still had essays to prove it. Most of us came to the meeting with falling-apart dog-eared copies of Persuasion. One had been a childhood gift, decades ago, from a grandmother. But those with Kindles could rapidly produce the amusing quotes that added much to the buzz of the meeting.  

Persuasion was one of Austen’s last works, the title having been added after her death. She wrote six novels published over a period of seven years, then died, aged 41, at the height of her powers. One member remarked “Oh, what would she have gone on to write, what a pity she died so young”. Our emailing member reminded us of a point we made several years ago:

“…a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Final Plays’ fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in Memories of my Melancholy Whores – probably his last work of fiction – Gabriel García Márquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love.”

He felt that Jane Austen in her very different way in this novel has also produced a meditation on time, aging and love, not to mention also the role of women and men in society.

In Persuasion, published in 1817 shortly after her death, the author writes about her own world – the ordinary people of the time and place – the Regency period in the south of England. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, slavery had not yet been abolished and the Empire continued to expand. However, these momentous events do not impinge on the novel, which centres on the actions of the Elliots – a well-to-do family headed by the vain and self-satisfied baronet Sir Walter Elliot, including three daughters Elizabeth, Anne and Mary. They live in the ancestral home Kellynch Hall in Somerset, but when Sir Walter’s extravagances leave them in debt it becomes necessary to move to Bath. The novel is written from the viewpoint of Anne, who at the tender age of 19 had fallen in love and accepted a proposal of marriage from a handsome young naval officer Frederick Wentworth. However, she had been persuaded by her family to break off the engagement as Wentworth was not from the ‘right sort’ of family and was not rich. It is this persuasion, and several other persuasions throughout the plot, that gives the novel its name. A decade later, Anne was rumoured by friends and acquaintances to be about to marry a distant relative, William Elliot, who happens to be the heir presumptive of Sir Walter. She is torn apart with anguish when her true love Wentworth re-appears.  After a successful naval career he has become wealthy. However, social conventions, pride and bad timing prevent the two from meeting properly and declaring their love, but finally after several chance encounters he writes a passionate love letter to her. Meanwhile, Elliot turns out to be a manipulative scoundrel, and Anne marries her true love Frederick.

The novel exposes the social conventions of the period. Young men and women of the titled rich were expected to marry ‘well’, into a ‘good’ family, and persuasion by parents, siblings and friends was the norm. Marriage was seen as an economic arrangement. Social life around the big houses of the day was elaborate, intense and gossipy. Matches were made, and women must have felt progressively humiliated if they remained spinsters. What was a thirty-something spinster expected to do with her life?  Needlework and walks in the countryside, charitable activities and perhaps artistic pursuits were possible of course. The men on the other hand were capable of entertaining themselves as men usually do: the hunting of rats in the barn seemed to be a popular male pursuit in this novel! The social skills of the era and especially etiquette are well portrayed: a man needed to develop charm and good manners to attract the Regency lady, even though his thoughts may have been operating at rat level. 

Austen herself was never married, although she seemed to like men. She was engaged at a young age but for just one day before deciding that her betrothed, one Harris Bigg-Wither, was not the one for her. Our email member wondered why all Austen’s male rogues have names that begin with “Wi” or “Wy”. Perhaps this was an unconscious sexual echo by the maiden Jane.

Regarding match-making and social convention, we saw parallels with some British Muslim and Sikh communities in modern times, where parents strive to find suitable partners for their offspring, resorting sometimes to cousin marriage to retain cultural values, family wealth and to strengthen family ties. In Regency Britain, the pool of eligible young men was restricted geographically, and the situation was exacerbated as many men failed to return from the wars.

The novel does not delve into the social injustices of Regency society – we noted the contrast between Austen’s work and the much later Victorian novels of Charles Dickens which explicitly portray poverty. The work of Dickens was avidly read and became politically influential for social change, but Austen’s novels sold less although the Prince of Wales (then Regent, later becoming George 1V) was a big fan. She made very little money from her work (to be exact, she made 38 pounds, 18 shillings and one penny, which would be about £3,000 in today’s money). She became popular from 1883 onwards, following the publication of illustrated editions and collectors’ sets. 

There were other female authors of her era who did influence public opinion and hastened the move to social reform.  Fanny Burney (1752 –1840) sold far more books in her day – her work covered similar ground to Austen’s. She wrote more than Austen, she was more political, and wrote a famous horrendous account of her own mastectomy in her diary. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was another author of the period, writing two novels which highlighted the subordinate position of women, although her most famous work is non-fiction – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to the daughter we know as Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) wrote prolifically about education, corresponded with Walter Scott, and provided practical support for the victims of the Irish potato famine. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was a definite influence: Austen’s Northanger Abbey satirised The Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Radcliffe novels. All four of these women were famous in their day and might have had much to talk about with Austen had they ever met. However, they are largely forgotten, known only to scholars. Jane Austen on the other hand has become progressively more famous, her work having been adapted to films and TV series. Why the fame? We don’t really know – but perhaps she is the one who best portrays the upper classes during the Regency’s ‘mini-Renaissance’ of culture and refinement.

One of our members thought Persuasion to be ‘a savage book’, citing DW Harding’s Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. According to this thesis, Austen fires bullets at all the characters except navy men (her brother was in the navy, and she probably had an admiration for that career). Most of us thought the word ‘savage’ was a bit strong, but perhaps not so when her critique is calibrated according to her usual genteel and highly nuanced style of writing. This style is her hallmark.  Walter Scott liked it: he said she was a ‘miniaturist’ contrasting to his own ‘bow-wow’ approach.  Virginia Wolfe’s 1925 review of a new edition of Austen’s collected works, published in The New Republic was more circumspect. Wolfe marks out Persuasion as being special among the novels – signalling a new period of Austen’s own development:

She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” 

This raises the question of how far the character Anne Elliot is Jane herself. The two have much in common – an early love affair, a gentrified upbringing, and a sudden family translocation to Bath. But some of us thought Jane herself would have been far more assertive, not holding back in matters of the heart. It’s a pity that most of her letters were destroyed after her death, so we know rather little of her private life. They were destroyed by family members allegedly because they satirised and ridiculed acquaintances – Austen had a wicked streak that often offended. However, there could well have been other motives for destroying these letters  – matters of the heart or business affairs with her publisher for example. According to the on-line publicity for the Bodlean show: The exhibition presents Austen as a risk-taking businesswoman and a wartime writer who was informed and inspired by the international adventures of her family members. That’s quite different from what most people imagine she was like, and at variance with the impressions we have of her emotional character from Virginia Wolfe’s article:

There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman’s constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so. 

Members who were re-reading the novel after many years said they liked it even more than they did the first time. “A book to read in one’s maturity” someone said. “Autumnal” said another.

We discussed readability. Those of us new to Austen, and more accustomed to our own worlds of reading and writing as a means of communicating facts, had struggled with the lengthy sentences. Whilst important in expressing emotional feelings it seems they detract from the plot. We wondered: did people really speak like that in the Georgian era; it’s silly, it takes so long to come to the point? Later, I looked up the sentence lengths of various authors: Austen, 20 words; Dickens, 17; Conan Doyle, 15. It’s a small variation but it seems more.

The plot? “Isn’t it a bit Mills & Boon” said one of our members, grinning. There was general agreement that the plot is predictable, and that the ending proceeds too rapidly– but we had in mind that she had been ill and hardly able to work for the last year of he life. Also, unlike her early novels, she did not have time to receive comments from family members and to re-write parts as she customarily did. This may be why Persuasion, consciously or otherwise, has the character of a last and quite different work.

Humour? One member found humour in every paragraph. Well, subtle humour maybe. Skilful understatement and irony are done well. Sometimes the humour is not so subtle, like Colonel Wallis’s impressions of Bath:

“The worst of Bath was, the number of its plain women… He had frequently observed that .. one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five and thirty frights… he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them .. there certainly were a multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse.”

Scarcely an evening at the bookgroup goes by without some reference to football. One member commented that the above quote from Colonel Wallis is nearly identical to the one about the town of Barnsley by the Macedonian footballer Georgi Hristov, (then) recently bought by Barnsley Football Club. He could have been thinking of nothing other than the passage from Persuasion, Volume 2, Chapter III when he said:

 “I’m finding it difficult to find a girlfriend in Barnsley, or indeed settle into a decent way of life. The local girls are far uglier than the ones back in Belgrade or Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where I come from. Our women are much prettier. Besides, they don’t drink as much beer as the Barnsley girls which is something I don’t like at all.”

We enjoyed the novel. The author writes about the world she knows so well, and thus remains in complete control of her material. Her use of language to express Anne’s anguish is exquisite. We liked her delicate use of understatement and irony, and the way she exposes the precarious economic position of women of the era as well as the difficult choices young women faced as a result of family pressure and social constraints. There is a faint hint of the coming social changes: this is the tipping point between the time when wealth was entirely in the hands of the landed gentry, and the modern era. Wentworth, who started as a poor midshipman but advanced his rank and fortune through capturing enemy vessels, has been described as the prototype of the self-made man. Many a man made his fortune through war.

It was time to go home. As I reached in my pocket to retrieve keys, I came upon a £10 note, the 2017 plastic one with Jane Austin’s portrait. How remarkable that a woman who was little-known in her own lifetime has become a literary icon, sharing ten-pound note status with the likes of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens. Winston Churchill only made it to the fiver.

Kay, Adam Richard: This is Going to Hurt

Adam Richard Kay (born 12 June 1980) is a British comedy writer, author, comedian and former doctor He grew up in a Jewish household and with his father being a doctor; he describes becoming a doctor as being a default decision.

This is Going to Hurt is Kay’s first book and was published in September 2017 becoming an instant Sunday Times number one bestseller, a position it has held for over a year, selling over one million copies. It was the book of the year in the UK’s 2018 National Book Award and has been translated into 28 languages, achieving number one status internationally. It was the UK’s second-best selling book of 2018.

There were 6 members present (plus 1 e-mail input).  The book appealed to its proposer, a retired General Medical and Hospital Practitioner, because of its medical content, its humour and the trials and tribulations of life as a junior doctor. Although, in the book, hospital doctors are depicted as poorly paid, undervalued and grossly neglected professionals who are unfailingly willing to give up their own time for free to do battle with the health of the nation, the group agreed that the book had largely been written to entertain, being well written and full of great humour, quick wit and metaphors, reading like a Fringe Show!

The medical memoir is not a new idea and three years ago our group read Henry Marsh’s “Do No Harm”. This focussed more on the ethical and the surgical, and as a consequence conformed to a scrupulous style of writing. Kay’s approach is a much more personal and, not infrequently, flippant recounting of his experiences, but he insists that the book is “reasonably accurate”. Nonetheless we felt that there are many situations that tested plausibility and also that he had probably “borrowed” a few tales! At the end of the book he stated that the NHS was underfunded, inefficient and not understood by “the powers that be” with Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt being highlighted as the villain! But it was felt that he had failed to provide a strongly argued case in the book.

An early issue raised was whether it was ethical to use his patients’ experiences as a source of comedy and whether their permission had been sought. Might they be distressed? His lawyers had been involved in his final draught! Some felt that he also might have brought the profession into disrepute undermining the public’s confidence and raising anxiety for some patients. The group didn’t substantiate these comments as the author had changed the patients’ names and details of the incidents modified to respect privacy. This is common practice. e.g. in Colin Douglas’ excellent series of books on an Edinburgh doctor and A J Cronin’s books such as the “Citadel”, the latter which we read in the group, contained anonymised medical stories. The general public obviously enjoy reading about the misfortunes of others!

His leaving the profession with a strong sense of guilt, although he had done his best, led to a discussion on the problem that must be resolved of losing too many trained staff from the profession for many reasons including the “greener grass” overseas but it was pointed out that we probably had a net gain with our incoming professionals.

  • Sexual
  • Human idiosyncrasies in 21st century Britain
  • Unreasonableness of the NHS
  • Remarkable physical ailments
  • Unexpected twists

All pulled together by self-deprecating wit, deadpan delivery, sharp sarcasm, and economy of language. He also agreed with many of us that the use of black humour is a defence mechanism against awful situations as also often emerges in war memoirs.  He did find the downbeat ending a bit of a surprise, a crashing of the gears, but it added poignancy to the diaries.

The group agreed that overall it was a remarkably funny book, well written, easily read and that it encouraged debate on our national treasure, the N.H.S.

Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad

The  proposer indicated that the author was a highly regarded African-American writer who had written six novels and two books of non fiction. The Underground Railroad had won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The members of the book group broadly appreciated and enjoyed the book. It was written in an interesting and individual style. The jumping around of the narrative was disconcerting at first but became familiar and acceptable.

The scenes of slavery in action were vivid and sensational. The individual slaves, particularly Cora, were well portrayed.  Ridgeway was also an interesting, obsessive and complex character. In many ways he epitomised the American belief in manifest destiny, the right to take over the North American continent at the expense of others, the British, Spanish/Mexican, Native and African Americans. 

Man’s inhumanity to man was well displayed in the novel. Despite the subject matter and its American origins the novel was not sentimental. Indeed the tone had shades of lightness and humour.

The concept of a literal underground railroad was regarded as powerful by some but others thought it undermined the credibility of the novel. There were also concerns that some of the scenes were over sensationalised, for example the attack on the black farm in Indiana. The ending was seen by some as also detracting from the credibility of the novel. 

One member indicated he found it difficult to suspend disbelief for historical novels that departed too much from the historical record though another member queried whether the book was a historical novel at all. It had magic realism aspects; Gullivers’ Travels and Science Fiction novels came to mind. 

Inevitably the group discussed historical aspects of slavery, particularly in the United States.

It was argued that while white southerners were understandably portrayed as racists all Americans were implicated in the system of slavery which was built into the US Constitution. This required all Americans to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the slave states. The US economy as a whole was dependent on slavery. Abolitionists were a small minority in the North, much as contemporary Americans might wish otherwise.

Only a minority of fugitive slaves used the underground railroad, mainly from the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Most fleeing slaves went to Mexican territories and there were free slave settlements in Texas and New Mexico. There had also been many risings by slaves against the whites, the Nat Turner one in Virginia in the 1830s being a famous example.

Interestingly many black Americans who had gone north in the past were now returning to their old homeland in the south.  One member who had recently been in the southern states argued that the South was coming to terms well with the slavery past; he instanced a number of civil rights museums he had visited in the region.    

It was pointed out that in most of history, conquering societies had made their defeated opponents into slaves. African societies were no different and had captured their enemies and sold them to white slave traders for conveyance to the Americas. Slavery still existed even in contemporary western society, albeit more concealed, for sexual and labour purposes. 

Overall the large number- 10- of members present much enjoyed the novel which had stimulated a very good discussion.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead