Delaney, Frank: Ireland

How long is a good book?

Silly question, you may say. In our book group discussions we have considered “The Driver’s Seat” by Muriel Spark, 102 pages of sparse text, and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, 715 pages plus an epilogue in my edition. I doubt there is any correlation between quality and length, although your scribe has often advised students how to cut a 200-page thesis full of “essential” information down to a 10-page journal paper that someone will read.

How long is a good discussion of a book?

Although I have not kept an exact record, I would guess our median length of Monthly Book Group meeting was about two hours, two glasses of wine, or two pints of best beer, dependent on your unit of measure. Since March, we have been driven to video meetings by lockdown, and these meetings have been noticeably shorter, constrained by the technology. Yet our attendances have gone up, no doubt influenced by the lack of opportunity to travel, go to the theatre or the pub.

What has this to do with Ireland, by Frank Delaney?

Well, while it falls far short of Tom Wolfe, it isn’t a short book (479 pages). During discussion, several, but not all, of the members suggested shorter was better in this case. Two members had listened to the audio version, not realising it had been abridged, and indeed one felt something was missing. It occurred that although it was not uncommon at our meetings to hear that such and such a book would benefit from a stronger editorial hand, or could be shortened considerably without losing any of its meaning or essential tone, it was very rare for someone to wish for a longer version of a given book. Are books getting longer as the policeman get younger? The meeting itself lasted 1 hour, certainly a result of the chosen technology.

Do I digress too much? What did we think of the book itself?

Our proposer told us how he had enjoyed it many years ago and, influenced by our recent interest in Irish novels, revisited it and was not disappointed. The opening paragraph captivated him, Frank’s powers of observation and description were delivered in flowing language casting the magic that pervades the novel. Indeed, the opening paragraph sets the scene for the succeeding pages, prefacing the interleaving of the coming of age story of Ronan, his search for his family history and the history of Ireland, and his eventual discovery of the unsettling truths. The book covers so many areas – history/legend, the Irish, nature, human interaction, and emotions, and does it so well.

It is said that stories are so important to human understanding and Frank certainly believes this. The book tells 29 stories, mostly by the Storyteller, full of love for Ireland, imagination, insights into nature and told with a beautiful Irish turn of phrase. Of course, the historical accuracy of the stories can be attacked (and it was) but the proposer argued that history need not be written from the political perspective but considered as grandfathers’ stories – stories that belong to every Irishman and unite them.

This prompted two recurring themes, first on the tradition of storytelling and how it had been lost, or at least supplanted by a new way of telling (YouTube anyone?). Not all agreed about the lost tradition, pointing towards the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the way the radio has captured folk stories and songs by travelling round the country, recording people telling tales at home and at work. Storytelling, whether historical or invented, by parent to child is still very important, The tradition of storytelling through the gospels was referenced, and of course these are still pertinent in modern life.  Billy Connolly and Dave Allen were mentioned, comedians certainly, but observers and storytellers too. Walter Scott appeared; he usually does! Linking the Irish and Scottish traditions, a “seanchaí” is a traditional Gaelic storyteller/historian. In Scottish Gaelic the word is “seanchaidh”, effectively the same word. Is there a parallel to “Ireland” in Scottish literature? Your blogger suggested George Mackay Brown, and in particular “Beside the Ocean of Time”, previously discussed on these pages. This too interleaves past and present, by dream rather than stories told, but in a similar tradition.

There was discussion on the theme of literacy. Did the advance of literacy diminish the role of the oral storyteller? On the other hand, there is evidence of declining literacy and numeracy for sure, and of the pervasive influence of technology and the media (Love Island, anyone?). Literate or not, there is a very pertinent phrase in the book, Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge”. Very well put, Frank!

The second theme was “accuracy”. I doubt anyone has a historical record of the life and social interaction of the Architect of Newgrange, who lived 5200 years ago, but the last story concerns the Easter Rising in 1916, and it is arguable that historical accuracy is more important. One described the “history stories” as simplistic and romantic; another depicted the stories as being rather over-sympathetic to the Irish point of view, depicting the English as aggressors. It was argued that history was much more “nuanced”, that events (“dear boy, events”) had much more complex origins.  On the other hand, these are stories, not historical records, and the author is Irish. It is fair to say opinion was divided on this dichotomy between historical accuracy and a “good story”. For example, the proposer talked of stories as learning tools (parables?), building up mental pictures of events to inspire and instruct. Maybe if truth is secondary to intent, we have propaganda (Brexit, anyone?).  As an aside, our man in Brussels told of a story embedded in Belgian folklore that Flemish soldiers were shot by French-speaking Walloon officers due to inadequate language skills and led, still, to some ill-feeling towards Walloons, even if a myth.

There was some discussion as to why the book finished in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Some suggested this was unfortunate as it omitted recent Irish history which might not be so favourable to the author’s point of view. On the other hand, the plot device relies on Ronan pursuing the Storyteller who was present at the GPO in 1916, and as such could not extend much beyond the 50th anniversary.

However, to be sure, the majority very much enjoyed reading the book. One enjoyed it very much – listened first, read later. He found that the author reading it gave it more feeling and meaning. He found the structure effective, a romantic, lovely story. Listening gave it closer proximity to the telling of tales rather than writing it down. As prefaced, the matter of editing cropped up. One liked the storytelling, but found it rather repetitive, and preferred the sections on family life and the way in which it is interspersed with stories. However, he gained a better understanding of the Irish people and life – and thought Delaney did this exceptionally well. Another talked of Irish kitsch and Irish pubs, he knew most of the stories and suggested they are not tremendously Irish-specific but occur in many verbal traditions.  The Irish professor was magnificent and humorous. He too, preferred the family story and the book had encouraged him to visit Ireland and travel the country lanes. A third believed it to be classically Irish, pitched at the American market, really enjoyed it, wanted more on Kate and Alison who he found intriguing and not uncommon in family histories. The proposer talked of the secrecy about Ronan’s birth and ancestry, everyone else knew about the O’Mara family, but this was kept secret for Ronan. It was argued that this was common in Ireland, and elsewhere.

One of today’s occupations is ‘living in the bubble’, not a coronavirus bubble, but only listening to stories that reinforce your narrative. Are there ‘echoes’ in Delaney’s book? One spoke of another book, “Paris Echo” by Sebastian Faulks, in which an oral historian in Paris collects stories of the German occupation in Paris. However, the oral historian only listens to the stories that reinforce his beliefs. We travelled back to Greek mythology, the original story of Narcissus and Echo – Narcissus who was so infatuated with himself he rejected Echo’s feelings for him and was punished by falling in love with his own reflection. Is Delaney guilty of this trait?

What did the meeting conclude? Well, despite the occasional gripe about length, repetition and historical bias, the overwhelming majority enjoyed the book and felt it gave a better understanding of the Irish tradition and way of life, and in at least one case encouraged a visit to the periphery of the island. We downed the last of our respective, Teamed, drinks, and made our way home. Ah, we were home already.

Runciman, David: How Democracy Ends”

We are still in lock-down and so again we met online. As we waited for all members to join, we joked about haircuts – how is one supposed to have hair cut during Covid-19 lockdown? Some members appeared distinctly shaggy, others had been well-trimmed by spouses, who themselves are feeling self-conscious about the state of their hair. It is just one of the many minor issues of the Corona virus pandemic, dwarfed by the major issues it raises.  There is one consolation: plenty of free time is available to read (or listen to) a good book.

This month’s book turned out to be extremely topical. It was published in 2018, just before Covid-19. The fragility of democracy in the face of this new global challenge had not yet been exposed. Now, the pandemic has underlined the case made in the book, that democracy has reached middle-age and in its present form it is not fit for purpose. It isn’t a particularly new viewpoint – one member noted that the Guardian columnist George Monbiot had made the same argument the day before:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/03/britain-democracy-tories-coronavirus-public-power

The author of the book, David Runciman, is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, and son of Viscount Garry Runciman, the political scientist and historical sociologist. Father and son both went to Eton and Cambridge, but they have evidently eschewed the path to politics that many from those esteemed stables have pursued, and instead opted for an academic life where they can stand back from the fray, observe, analyse and write. David Runciman’s writing has been well-received: the cover proclaims the Guardian’s opinion ‘Bracingly intelligent—a wonderful read’.

Did we agree? Broadly, yes; everyone had enjoyed the book. The author raises many thought-provoking issues (sometimes a bit rambling), and our discussion was lively.

In the Western world we think that democracy is the best system of government, and most people consider it to be an essential ingredient of a civilised society. Yet, it is easy to demonstrate the weakness of democracy by recalling the words attributed to Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Indeed, the average voter is ill-informed and ill-equipped to distinguish between the lies, half-truths and (sometimes) real truths uttered by the political leaders and re-enforced by media. Politics has become a stage-show; only clowns and con-men need apply. That’s a consequence of populism.  Hence, many of today’s national leaders are manifestly unsuited to the difficult task in hand and citizens suffer. In many countries the situation appears to be getting worse rather than better: the USA, UK, Brazil, Venezuela and Hungary are examples. The author discusses one possible remedy – replacing democracy with epistocracy.

Epistocracy is a political system which concentrates political power in the hands of citizens specially selected according to their knowledge of public affairs: the more informed members of society are allowed more votes than the less-well educated.  It is argued that public ignorance undermines the legitimacy of democracy because, to the extent that ignorant voters make bad choices, they harm their own and one another’s interests. Epistocracy would leave policy decisions largely in the hands of social-scientific experts or voters who pass tests of political knowledge. One member noted that epistocracy ‘of a sort’ was in place in Britain until the 1950s by special parliamentary seats. Arguably we still have elements of epistocracy: the House of Lords contains a supply of proven brain-power but whenever it speaks we are told it is an affront to democracy, so instead the noble Lords are mostly silent.

A related system of government is technocracy whereby those who govern have technical skills rather than parliamentary or oratorical skills. Ultimately, policy would be advised or even directed by computer models rather than human whim. Could a computer look after a nation, tweaking the levers of power at exactly the right moment to keep the ship on course? And if so, where does this leave democracy? One member recalled the sentient computer Hal 9000 in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the famous quote when things went wrong “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that”. Despite Hal’s short-comings, it is hard to deny that artificial intelligence will ultimately replace human intelligence as the best decision-making machinery.

The author reviews the ideas in the book Against Democracy by political philosopher Jason Brenner, who argued that democracy is overrated — that it isn’t necessarily more just than other forms of government, and that it doesn’t empower citizens or create more equitable outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic underlines the inadequacy of western liberal democracy. The most western and the most liberal of democracies are among those performing worst (with the highest death rates). In contrast, authoritarian governments in the East have taken action promptly and steered their countries relatively swiftly away from deaths and economic disaster. The governments of UK and USA took the complacent view, summarised as ‘it could never happen here’, ignoring scientific and medical advice available in January right up to the last-minute (end of March) and consequently the countries face social and economic trauma. But this alone is unlikely to lead to the end of democracy because both countries have ‘strong institutions’ (Runciman says) and are resilient.   Runciman provides historical perspective: he considers the history of government failure in USA and France in the 1890s where public mistrust of government was high and populism was rife. Yet the governments survived. However, today’s ‘strong institutions’ can be undermined by ‘fake news’ and ‘conspiracy stories’ spread rapidly on the internet.  Our 20th Century democracies have these characteristics, all of which are potentially destabilizing:

Uncontrolled corporate power (‘companies have become the real governors’)

Significant sections of society are under-educated and unemployable

Over-reliance on governmental traditions that are no longer fit for purpose

Debt, personal and governmental

Racism based on deep ethnic and religious divisions, polarised attitudes

Gutter press, distorting truth and focussing on triviality

The power of the web, with potential to undermine and corrupt any stable society

Environmental issues which are expensive to solve

Fragile food chains

Widespread violence, self-harm, suicide (in the USA more people kill themselves than are killed by others).

Runciman states that one good thing about democracy is that it provides citizens with personal dignity. We could not agree.  One member pointed out the case of democracy in India, applied to the caste system: not much personal dignity if you are one of the untouchables. It was argued that China fares better: it is definitely not a democracy but it is stable, people’s living standards have advanced at an unprecedented rate, and policy is planned over the long term by a connected Five Year Plans. However, there is a price to pay for tight political control, in terms of Human Rights.

In a concluding chapter ‘This is how democracy ends’, he says that Japan or Greece provide the best examples of how democracy will end  –  not with a bang but a whimper, wherein the problems are ‘kicked down the road’ and countries stagger along zombie-like. Growth ceases as the population grows steadily older.

The author does not give the reader any ‘fix’ to the problem of democracy’s decline. He says that democracy will have a drawn-out demise, being kept on life-support.  He thinks there might be places where democracy retains some of its youthful characteristics. One of our members thought that local democracy might have an important role to play.

The book was pacey and certainly stimulating. Some readers might find it depressing, consoled only by the thought that looking into the future has never been reliable. We simply don’t know what will happen next. All our institutions are fragile and unpredictable when faced with sudden large threats (pandemic, nuclear war, asteroid strike). Climate change is arguably manageable as it happens relatively slowly, giving time for adaptation, albeit at huge cost.

Other readers may keenly dip into the five pages of ‘Further Reading’ that the author has thoughtfully provided. Me, I’ve had enough of this topic. I’ll read some more David Lodge next – Deaf Sentence is supposed to be good.

Fulton, John: 66: The House that viewed the World

This meeting, held on April 30 2020 several weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, was the second online meeting of the group. In spite of a few little problems with sound, the Teams format worked well on the whole – our thanks to Andy for arranging this. One good thing – one of the email members of the group, currently based in Sweden, was able to participate for the first time – and did so to very good effect.

The proposer offered the following details on the author:

 John Fulton, W.S. John David Orchard Fulton, was born in Edinburgh in 1954, spending his childhood in Inverleith.  He attended the Edinburgh Academy and studied law at Edinburgh University. John’s father, David, had a distinguished war career being awarded an MC at the battle for Monte Cassino. Later that year he lost his leg when his sergeant stood on a mine.

In 1978 John joined Tods Murray, W.S. where his father was senior partner. He worked for 27 years from the building at 66 Queen Street until the firm moved to new purpose built premises at Edinburgh Quay, Fountainbridge in 2005. John spent much of his working life with a client base in the Far East, mainly Hong Kong, Singapore and China. He later became a partner with Anderson Strathearn where he continues as a consultant.

He has four adult children and lives with his partner in Moray Place.

On his reasons for suggesting this book, the proposer notes: ‘I was intrigued by the stories of the extraordinary people and events associated with the house from its building in 1792, covering the Scottish Enlightenment to the banking crisis in 2007. The book covered many aspects of Scottish history, history of the New Town, and characters connected with many of the cities professions. I found it an enjoyable and most fascinating read.’

The book had received favourable notices in the press,  a recent review in the Law Society Review concluding: ‘ There is only one recommendation. In these uncertain and unsettling times, buy a copy and relish all that Mr Fulton offers in this superb book.’

There was quite a lively discussion, in which the book got a more mixed reception than the reviewer’s comments would suggest. Many of the group had enjoyed the engaging stories and the colourful characters, heroes and villains and plenty in between, but there was a general agreement that the most attractive chapters were the earlier ones, with a feeling that there was rather too much about Tods Murray in what  followed. The book was written out of enthusiasm, and it was felt that it might have been better served by more rigorous editing.

            We wondered whether 66: The House that viewed the World  had been written with a particular audience in mind. It was not intended as an academic study, and indeed various sections (e/g the Enlightenment or the Wars in Bengal) struck those who knew the subjects well as rather flimsily researched – on the Enlightenment, for instance, most of the references were to Arthur Herman’s How the Scots invented the modern world, taking little account of the rest of the voluminous literature on the subject. The book seemed most likely to appeal to the legal community and to residents of the New Town – but perhaps also to visitors to the city who would be attracted by famous names and well-known stories, even if their connection to 66 Queens Street was sometimes a bit thin.

            One of the participants, trying to discern a ‘red thread’ that connected the various stories in the book, had done a chart in which the main themes of each chapter were listed; he found that the two most constant subjects of interest were the firm of  Tods Murray, and the aristocracy or social elite. As a result, the book offered only a very partial view of Edinburgh’s social history, concentrating on the ‘high heid yins’. It was interesting to compare it with some recent TV programmes devoted to the history of single houses in Liverpool and Newcastle, where one was able to track something of the economic and social history of the place through the very different people who successively lived there. In this book there was disappointingly little on the actual house and those who occupied it – it was more a question of the cases dealt with by Tods Murray. Maybe another house, perhaps in a different part of town, might have been more productive?

            Overall, this varied collection of historical cases was enjoyed  by most of the group, in whole or in part. And it certainly gave rise to some interesting, wide-ranging discussions, some closely related to the book, others more tangential: e.g. on Catholic and Protestant views of Scottish history, or on the peer review system for scientific publishing and the way this has been affected by the new possibilities offered by the Internet.

Bulgakov, Mikhail: The Master and Margarita

As a consequence of the lockdown due to the coronavarius pandemic, the Monthly Book Group met via video conferencing to discuss the month’s book. The proposer first read the book many years ago. He had no knowledge of Bulgakov but read the book in order to pass the time of day as he recovered from a hip operation. He found it a bit silly but quite amusing in an odd sort of way.

He was reminded of this recently when the group read “ The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K.Chesterton, which was described as a “phantasmagorical romp through London”. and was considered  diabolic in a clever and entertaining way. The similarity with Bulgakov inspired him to re-read “The Master and Margarita again and to recommend it to the Group. On the second reading he became much more engaged in the substance of the novel, and the messages and meanings behind the storyline. At one level it is simply absurd, funny and ridiculous but at another it reflects the angst and frustration of a great talent living in constant fear of being “found out”

Bulgakov was born in 1891. His mother was a teacher and his father was a priest. (Both his grandfathers were clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church).This family history of religious belief  might partly explain the quasi-religious storyline. He studied medicine at Kiev University and on graduating became a physician at Kiev Military Hospital.

At the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to the front where he was badly injured. As a result of these injuries and the pain associated with them he became addicted to morphine. He overcame this addiction in 1918 but in 1919 he fell seriously ill with Typhus. Recovering from this illness he abandoned his medical practice to pursue a writing career. Despite some success he found his work increasingly criticised and subject to the control of the state.

The novel was written between 1928 and 1940. Bulgakov recognised the danger of publishing the book in his lifetime and continued to edit it right unto his death in 1940. The book was eventually published in 1966/7 thanks to the persistence of his widow. In 1929 his writing career was all but ruined when government censorship stopped the publication of any of his work. In despair he wrote to Stalin who provided him with work but, more importantly protected him from arrest and execution.

The proposer obtained much greater insight into the circumstances which informed the writing of the book through reading “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” Mikhail Bulgakov: A Life in Letters and Diaries. by J.A.E, Curtis. This book details the precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges and provides an understanding of the day to day existence of a man grappling with persecution.

It is against this background that Bulgakov creates a twilight world where nothing is as it seems and the fantastical, paranormal and downright evil are treated as every day occurrences. People lie routinely and are unjustifiably rewarded. Bulgakov’s characters are in a sort of living hell but remain able to find amusement in what is happening around them. Survival depends on the human spirit’s ability to make sense of the absurd to rationalise and to detect humour in the diabolic.

It is a hugely complex novel which the proposer has now come to appreciate, having initially discounted it as being too frivolous to warrant the scrutiny of the Monthly Group Group.

DISCUSSION

The overall response of members was to praise the choice. It was much enjoyed as a funny, likeable, sparkling, deeply serious and often baffling unpredictable  satirical tour-de-force. There were quite distinctive styles  of the different parts of the book. The different styles and worlds both contradicted and reinforced each other. The Devil is in Moscow but God has no role in Jerusalem.

Members appreciated different aspects of the novel. The beginning was superb with lots of the detail of living in a Stalin-era apartment and the scenes at the Writers’ Club, the psychiatric hospital and theatre. The interweaving of Pontius Pilate within the two/three juxtaposed stories was mysteriously fascinating, well written and convincing.

Others liked the satanic party in the second part. though one thought there was too much witchery, tomcat, devil’s sabbath etc. Woland and his entourage were strong characters.

The religious aspects of the book were noted. The epigraph at the front of the book from Goethe’s  Faust was significant: ‘That Power I serve which wills forever evil yet does forever good’. Two members pointed out that Mick Jagger had been reading M&M when the Rolling Stones had recorded ‘Beggars Banquet’, probably their best record, and the Bulgakov influence was noticeable, particularly on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

One of our number reminded us that when it came out it was a real sensation in Russia, opening for younger writers the possibility of a kind of wild, non-Socialist-Realism way of writing.

There were some difficulties with the novel. As ever in Russian novels the names with their patronymics were not easy to differentiate. Many of the allusions were not easy to understand given the remoteness of the time and culture. Despite the Communist context, the culture was clearly very Russian, both Tsarist and now. The point was made though that great satire needed to stand on its own, eg Gulliver’s Travels, and the Master and Margarita passed this test.

The Master, based on Bulgakov, only appeared briefly in the first part of the book and Margarita , based on his third wife, did not appear until Book 2. The book had been revised many times over the years when publication was not  possible and it was perhaps over revised. As ever translations were compared, Michael Glenny being the most in use.

Devine, Tom: The Scottish Clearances

Devine is Scotland’s current pre-eminent historian. His general history of Scotland 1700-2000 is probably his best known work but Scotland’s Empire and To the Ends of the Earth have highlighted the huge contribution of the Scots to the British Empire and emigration.

The Scottish Clearances is most recent work. Note the title; not Highland Clearances but Scottish Clearances. The Highland Clearances are a potent part of Scottish mythology both in Scotland and amongst the diaspora. The popular view is that the dispersal of Scots across the seas was caused by greedy landlords. Devine shows from historical record that the realities of the diaspora are far from simple. Many more Gaels left the Highlands voluntarily rather than being evicted. Yet the myth of total eviction is hugely prevalent and powerful both historically and culturally. John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances has more influence among the general public than among historians. Given the absence of academic histories of the Clearances until recently it is unsurprising that the simple narrative of betrayal, loss and forced exile has held the field.

Devine attempts three main tasks; to de-mythologise the Highland Clearances; to address the Lowland/Border experience of clearance which has attracted hardly any attention compared to the romantic Highland history; and finally to place the Highland experience of rural transformation within a broader European context of urbanisation.

BORDER CLEARANCES

Devine discusses the definition of “clearance”. Traditionally the popular usage applied to the removal, often by force, of peasant communities in the Highlands, was to make way for sheep farms. Modern scholarship, discussed by Devine, shows that this is too narrow a definition.

Many peasant communities in the Borders were also dispossessed but attracted virtually no attention. This is partly because those dispossessed in the farming areas of the Eastern Borders made no noise. Devine suggests that this may be because of continuing employment opportunities there, both in the labour intensive large arable farms and in the woollen trade in the Border towns. Gradual dispossession was the norm, eviction was rare. It was Clearance by stealth.

In the hill areas of the Borders, more suitable for sheep rather than arable farming there was no such alternative employment opportunities for most of the dispossessed. In Galloway were protests involving levelling the dykes against the enclosing of lands for cattle rearing. This was a rare example of protest. Interestingly the memory of the Galloway “Levellers” revolt of 1724, though it lived on locally, has made no lasting popular expression.

An alternative to finding other work in Scotland was emigration. As Devine shows between 1700 and 1818 some 100.000 Scots emigrated to North America from lowland Border areas.

HIGHLAND CLEARANCES

Devine argues that a rapid and sustained increase in population was the critical factor in the social history of the Highlands c 1750-1850 though ignored in popular accounts of Clearance. In southern Argyll and the eastern Highlands the increase was small but in the far west and north, the poorest agricultural lands, it was very considerable. In the southern and eastern counties more people migrated to the booming Lowland towns and cities. The North and West Highlands have become notorious for the large scale Clearances to make way for sheep runs. Yet mass migration leading to depopulation did not automatically follow. Only where removals were particularly severe was there evidence of abandoned dwellings, e.g. in Sutherland. Indeed more Gaels emigrated after the Clearances than during. No other set of Clearances matched those of Sutherland. Gradual displacement was the norm; most people were not evicted but “moved voluntarily”. But for the rapid spread of the potato after 1750, there would have been much greater flight from the land.

The Highland military tradition metamorphosed into Imperial Service in the British Army. The connection between the new regiments and the traditional clans was superficial. Landowners harvested the population of their estates for the army in order to make money. Recruitment to the army provided the Chiefs with many benefits. In the late 18th century and early 19th they were opposed to emigration. It meant the loss of valuable military manpower and workers for the estates. Few Highlanders left for north America before 1790; many did so subsequently. Many army veterans also stayed in America after  the Seven Years War, enjoying service land grants.   After the American War of Independence the remaining British Colonies in Canada were more attractive, not least because most were Loyalists. This was not flight of the poor and dispossessed. They were the middling ranks of Highland society, particularly the Tacksmen. A mixture of demographic and economic factors were the reasons. Emigration was opposed by the state and the landowners but the emigrants prospered free from landlord oppression in America.

Much of the emigration of Highlanders in the 19th century was led by the search for opportunities overseas. But in the 1840s and 1850s emigration was driven by subsistence crisis, clearance and peasant expropriation. Potato blight was the background. Disaster was averted as compared to Ireland, by its smaller scale and intervention by the Scottish Authorities,  churches, landlords and charities. The positive role of Scottish landlords contrasts with the indifference of their Irish counterparts. Scotland was also a richer society with a range of employment opportunities.

The deep recession in Scotland from 1848 changed the situation. Cattle prices fell by half. Relief work ended. In addition quite a number of Highland estates were insolvent and managed by trustees. Trustees were more rigorous than local owners.; their responsibility was to creditors and they could not assist the poor. Eviction was therefore unavoidable. Racist attitudes towards the Celts was also a factor as seen in Scottish newspapers. Anti Celtic racists saw poverty in the Highlands as not caused by economics but because of racial inferiority. The traditional values of the highlanders were in conflict with capitalism and the morality of the time.

In 1850 Sir Charles Trevelyan was convinced that emigration was the answer to the social ills of the Highlands. From 1840 to 1860 there was a huge decrease in the population of the Western Highlands primarily as a result of emigration. Coercion was employed widely and systematically. These extreme Clearances were unique in the history of the Scottish Clearances and made a deep mark and their memory endured while most of those that had gone before were forgotten.

Mass clearance in the highlands ended in the late 1850s. Economic conditions improved. Transport improved. Seasonal employment opportunities vastly increased. Life was still precarious. Recovery was modest and insecure. The Crofters Act of 1886 made clearances impossible. The legislation made the tenancy of a Croft heritable thus depriving the landlord of much of his right of ownership.

CONCLUSION

Clearance is an omnibus term. The forcing out of people in the Highlands is the most notorious, best documented and remembered. As Devine shows a myriad set of influences and pressures led to loss of land. But in the Highlands clearances were more dramatic. Highland landlords had fewer options than those in the Lowlands for industrial development. Racist dogma against the Gaels was present. Traditional Gaelic values were a factor including the belief that landlords had a duty to protect their people in return for rent and service.  The tide turned against the landlords by the later C19th and sympathy for the Highlanders grew.  Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘History of the Highland Clearances’ published in 1883 was the definitive guide to the subject, strongly influencing later writers such as John Prebble and Ian Grimble. The narrative of landlord iniquity and forced evictions is compelling and poignant but is only partially true. It ignores the limitations of natural resources in the Highlands; a large increase of population on poor land with no alternatives for subsistence or employment; bankruptcy of the old traditional landed class; and the power of market capitalism. These factors cannot be ignored but a tale of wicked landlords is more appealing. Many landlords did their best at considerable cost to avoid clearance but in the end they failed. Consumerism got the better of many.

The Members really enjoyed the book. “A triumph to cover such a broad sweep of history while doing full justice to its complexity and keeping the book readable.” One asked when the Clans stopped fighting. One of the themes of Scottish history is the gradual envelopment of the Highlands within the State. This was completed after the Union and resulted in the break-up of the Clan system. One of our number reported that Loch is a family middle name because an ancestor was Factor to the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. James Loch was handsomely remembered. Another Member was descended from crofters who had been ejected from the Sutherland Estate during the same period.

Finally the military aspect where the unemployed could join the army was an interesting element that most had not appreciated.

Ondaatje, Michael: Warlight

INTRODUCTION

Born in Ceylon in 1943, his erratic family split up and he went with his mother, in the middle of his schooling, to London where he attended Dulwich college [like Raymond Chandler, PG Wodehouse and other literary figures]. He chose to go to University in Canada in 1962, and from then on English Literature was his chosen path. He wrote poetry, published from 1967, and most of his books are still of poetry. The English Patient made his international reputation, winning the Man Booker Prize, and later the award for the best novel ever to win the award. He is also an essayist, editor and film maker. He lives with his second wife and has children. His credits also include “Leonard Cohen [ Literary criticism]” in 1970. He continues to write novels, each taking years to complete.  Warlight was published in 2018.

Why did the proposer choose it? A friend who is a Professor of Eng Lit gave him the book and suggested it should be read. The proposer felt enveloped by its mood and atmosphere. He loved the characters and the recounting of events was subtle and nuanced.

The title referred to light not visible from the air. The proposer considered  it a book about family memory. There were parallels with the Secret Scripture in this respect. The past never remains the past. It came back to Nathaniel because he became reconciled to his mother Rose. He tried to get his mother to help him and she only offered slight insights although she did offer herself to him more fully in the present. His memories were those of a boy of 14 over a period of about two years. His sister Rachel was 16 at the start and her assessment of what was happening was more mature; she understood the Moth and his role. But she never forgave her mother’s action in abandoning the two of them. She took some of the same opportunities with Nathaniel but she also seems to have been the young woman of parties etc. Her relationship with her brother, like her mother, did not survive and  she remained embittered. Nathaniel sensed that his mother would not answer many of his questions  and he  often pulled out of asking them. Of course his mother’s work was top secret. However his mother might have said more and invited him to ask while saying she would not always be able to answer. The chess games with the mother were interesting , perhaps a metaphor for the need for concealment and sacrifice of pieces. Only a secretive boy would have failed to ask about his father, i.e. why did he never appear even after the war?

The young Nathaniel befriended the Darter and Agnes. He may have been remote at school but he got himself together and went to college where he became a linguist like his mother. He then bonded with Mr Malakite but finally he ends up with a greyhound as his only friend. The end is the saddest part of the book. All folly, risk taking and comradeship are gone. And what of Rose? Possibly “groomed” by Felon [a hint in his name?], she then abandons her children and possibly she abandons her husband too. In return is she a heroic figure? Her orders latterly were to neutralise  right wing former enemies, being ex-fascist Croats and Italians. Was she always Felon’s property at the expense of her children? Was Rachel right? The end of their relationship was when Nathaniel went back to mum. In reality Mum wrecked the lives of both children .

DISCUSSION

There was general agreement that the book was unusual and intriguing. There was an amazing level of research and detail and it was no surprise that there were long gaps between his novels.

 A number of members had found it necessary to read the book twice.

There was a consensus that in Warlight it was difficult at times to work out what is happening. The novel is narrated by the central protagonist, Nathaniel, who is an adult at the time of writing, but is remembering the destabilising years of his boyhood, years that made him an uneasy, unsettled man. His mother, as he recalls it, left him and his sister, Rachel, at boarding school and went to join their father in Singapore, where he worked for Unilever. When his narrative begins, Nathaniel is 14 and Rachel is 16: they hate their schools, and run away from them almost at once. When the children arrive back in London they find that The Moth – the odd character their mother left in charge – has taken up residence in their home, along with various cronies, including The Pimlico Darter. The Moth and The Darter, like their names, come from a Dickensian dream of London: up to their  necks in greyhound racing, smuggling and art theft, they navigate the backwaters of the Thames in suspenseful darkness, and are full of arcane expertise. The Moth’s face is ‘lit by a gas fire while I asked question after question, trying to force an unknown door ajar’. There are middle-class mavericks too, weaving in and out of the children’s lives, always appearing to know more than they let on, never quite telling their whole story. Gangly, schoolboyish, clever Arthur McCash hands Nathaniel a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories as if it were a clue; Olive Lawrence, an element in The Darter’s colourful love life, is an ethnographer and geographer who speaks to the children ‘of Asia and the ends of the earth’.

The children slip the leash of the middle-class conventions of their era, and escape into the wilderness of the city. Nathaniel takes a job in the kitchens of the celebrated Criterion hotel; Rachel goes partying, comes back late, yet no one asks where she has been. They join The Darter on mysterious expeditions, smuggling dogs and goods (and, it turns out later, explosives). The idea of a teeming secret London concealed under the grey surface of postwar privation, throbbing with life and trade and risk and pleasure, is engaging enough. 

‘The munitions factories had been dismantled and the unused canals were silting up, becoming narrower between their overgrown banks. And on weekends this was where Rachel and I, the sidekicks of The Darter, now floated in the silence of those waterways … What we carried was probably not dangerous, but we were never sure … Rachel and I no longer fully believed The Darter’s stories about the delivery of European china to pay back the merchant who had let him borrow his barge during dog-racing seasons.’

It was mentioned that the post-war London scene was well set out in John Boorman’s film Hope and Glory. The blogger mentioned that the young seven year old star of the film was in his daughter’s class at the time in the late 1980s.    

The Suffolk sections of the book were also very powerfully described.

Nathaniel has an affair with Agnes, a girl from the Criterion, whose brother is an estate agent and has the keys to a succession of empty houses: this is rather a wonderful idea, and these sexual encounters, where the young lovers run around naked in the dark, are some of the best passages in the book.

And yet all these scenes and their striking ephemera – the greyhounds, the china, the empty munitions factories, Agnes’s handstands in an empty house, the sculptures of goddesses hidden in tunnels under the Criterion – are not quite as seductive as they ought to be. Part of the problem is in the awkward narrative positioning, with everything told through Nathaniel’s long retrospect. Since we only hear about it afterwards, in descriptive summary, we are never actually present in any scene; every element of the action, all the adventures and encounters, come to us muffled and at arm’s length.  The present of Warlight is located nowhere in particular, in a lost man wandering inside his past: the adult Nathaniel spends his days searching in a Foreign Office archive for traces of his mother’s story – and yet even the time of his searching is voiced as if from a distance still further on. Such time-play is standard novelistic sleight of hand, but it ought to be managed so that we do not notice it. And because the story is not anchored in any present, it shifts scene too often, adding to the blaze of its effects: there is simply too much that is striking, atmospheric, evocative. No detail, no place, no particular moment, has the breathing space to come into its own.

Rachel discovers their mother’s steamer trunk hidden in the basement of the house: the same trunk she packed with ostentatious care in front of her children, choosing dresses suitable for evening parties in Singapore. They wonder if she is dead, but the truth that gradually emerges is stranger than that: she is a brilliant, exceptional woman, estranged from their father and working for British intelligence in the Balkans, among other places. Later she seems to become disenchanted with this work: not only does her high-minded self-sacrifice come up against the grubby equivocations of real politics (she may have inadvertently helped Tito’s partisans locate a village where they massacred the inhabitants), she also realises that she has left her children at the mercy of malevolent forces. There is at least one attempted kidnapping. Her qualms seem belated. It is all very well, in fact it was standard middle-class practice at the time, to go abroad and leave your children behind, if you have important work to do (or even if you have not). But would she not have provided them with solid, ordinary defences: surrogate parents, establishment figures to oversee their safety and shelter their ignorance? For that matter, why not hide your steamer trunk somewhere less obvious? The plot of the novel – The Moth, The Darter, The Darter’s enthusiasm for Henry James, Agnes’s love-talk full of poetry, the near kidnapping, the archive, the effortless class slippages – strains credulity. Of course in a romance it does not strictly matter what is believable in real-world terms; but the other-world has to work, according to its own logic.

Every one of the adults around the baffled runaway teens seems brilliant and exceptional, not only their mother. The Darter has all along been engaged in essential government transports, alongside his smuggling; Olive Lawrence’s expertise on climatic conditions was invaluable on D-Day. We learn that their mother had a formative relationship with Marsh Felon (Marsh Felon, ‘Buster’ Milmo, The Forger of Letchworth, Sam Malakite: very Dickensian names). Marsh came from a local family of thatchers; she helped to nurse him after he fell from the roof of her house and her family paid for his education. Later, Marsh becomes her mentor in the secret service.  The adult world in Warlight is charged with power, as if everyone is in on secrets the children are shut out from – even though Nathaniel is an adult as he writes, and is supposed to have his hand on all the secrets contained in the archive. Now that time has passed and his mother is dead, he is trying to make sense of what she did to her children; he is trying to forgive her for it, but first he needs to understand it. Not following up on the father is odd. The narrative leaves a lot of unanswered questions

There was a recognition by members present that children never really understand their parent’s lives, particularly as the most significant part of their lives was usually, as in the book, before the children were born. Children also are not usually interested in their parents’ lives until they are much older and may not get the truth, particularly the bad stuff, from them. For example, holocaust survivors did not tell until they were very old and concerned about holocaust denial.

All-in-all members found the book, despite its faults, rewarding and enjoyable .

Wellum, Geoffrey: First Light

The author, Geoffrey Wellum, joined the RAF in 1939 at the tender age of 17. He tells his story in this book: learning to fly, ‘going solo’, getting his ‘wings’, serving as a Spitfire fighter in the Battle of Britain (July – October 1940) and beyond, and leading a group of eight Spitfires in a daring mission to get supplies to the stricken island of Malta.

He wrote this book 35 years later, from notes taken during those three hectic years – apparently not much embellished in style or content and making no attempt to embroider or to add historical context and analysis. In his Squadron they called him ‘The Boy’ as he was the youngest, although almost all were very young. Boyishness shines through to the text, perhaps it was his nature as much as his age.

We made comparison with a book we read last year, No Parachute, the diary of a fighter pilot from World War I. It is written in a more mature style; and that pilot (Arthur Gould Lee) rose to the high rank of Air Vice Marshall. His book is quite different, including opinion, criticism of how the war in the air was waged, and historical context.

Perhaps the boyish Wellum better conveys the man-machine relationship. One reader startled us by making the unexpected comparison with the book Half Man, Half Bike about Eddy Merckx the legendary racing cyclist. Both books portray how rider and machine blend in a symbiosis.  For example, the author writes:

They are alive, these Spitfires. They live like the rest of us, they understand. Never, no matter what the circumstances, shall I cease to be thrilled and excited by such a sight and the wonderful feeling of being involved in what I see. My thoughts are apt to stray from the task at such moments.

Yes, there are insights into psychology. The day-to-day fear of failure, overcoming the fear of death, coming to terms with loss of comrades and sheer mental exhaustion – these are the well represented. The good times are there too: the exhilaration of flight, the warmth and companionship of the Officers’ Mess and the evening excursions to the pub with its pretty barmaid.

Some of us were surprised that the pilots seemed unaware of ‘the bigger picture’. Did they  not read newspapers? Were they huddled around the radio in the Mess? Probably not – these things are scarcely mentioned in the book. Like soldiers, they followed orders from above. In the day-to-day action there was little free time; any free time was spent writing home, going for a drink with ‘the chaps’, generally unwinding. I checked newspaper reports: it’s all there for anyone to read – the Battle of Britain is vividly portrayed though often with inflated claims of numbers of downed German aircraft. Wellum has no comment on newspaper reports, and says nothing about what is happening beyond his squadron – for instance the extraordinary feats of the foreign pilots exiled from Nazi-occupied Europe, and pilots who came from Commonwealth countries. They formed entire squadrons and were very successful.  Nor does he mention the controversial ‘Big Wing’ idea favoured by Douglas Bader whereby several squadrons attack together. It seems a pilot’s interest was survival rather than the tactics and the progress of War as a whole. Again, very boyish.

Wellum joined the RAF because he wanted to fly. We have the impression he got more than he’d bargained for.  He learned skills in training and on the job. He didn’t shoot down many enemy planes, and he got lost on several occasions. But he survived whilst most of his colleagues and friends were killed or captured.

Compared with some of our books, this one was certainly an ‘easy read’, and for most of us, it was thrilling and enthralling to the end. You are there with him in squadron 92 (call sign Gannic), in the cockpit, looking out for bandits (enemy), especially snappers (Messerschmitt 109 fighters) and flying to the angels (clouds):

Gannic leader, this is Sapper. One hundred and fifty plus approaching Dungeness at angels twelve. Vector 120. Over.

Sapper, this is Gannic, message received and understood.

Gannic, bandits include many snappers (I say again, many snappers, keep a good lookout. Over.

Sapper, this is Gannic. OK, understood. I am steering 120 and climbing hard through angels seven. Over.

He dodges the flak, learns to out-manoeuvre the enemy, and shows no hesitation in going for the kill. To kill or be killed; to be killed or to fly away. In peacetime these young men would be what today we call ‘boy-racers’. Boy-racers annoy us in peacetime but become heroes in war-time, and they get medals.

We discussed the recruitment policy of the RAF at the time of the War. It seems Wellum was accepted following the revelation that he had captained his school cricket team, and we know he attended an independent school, suggesting he came from the ruling classes. In fact, in contrast to WWI, most pilots were middle-class. Later, Churchill observed the “failure” of Eton, Harrow, and Winchester schools to contribute pilots to the Royal Air Force1.  Less than 10% were from elite schools. Churchill said, “They left it to the lower middle class”. Of those “excellent sons” of the lower middle class, Churchill concluded, “They have saved this country; they have the right to rule it.”

What was it like to shoot down an enemy plane? The author says this to himself:

Geoff, you’ve just killed a bloke, a fellow fighter pilot…That was just about as callous and as calculating as you can get, just plain cold-blooded murder…It’s all bloody wrong somehow, that twentieth-century civilization should have been allowed to come to this.

We considered the morality of war. Ironically, when the same English coast was being defended in Elizabethan times there were Rules of Engagement. But not so in the twentieth-century. However, at the start of the War Hitler gave strict orders that civilians should not be targeted in bombing raids, but when the RAF bombed Berlin he was furious and changed his mind.

We were joined by one of our e-mail members, an ex-RAF man; he greatly assisted our discussion about the tactics of the protagonists and the strengths and weaknesses of their respective aircraft. On the central question of ‘how did Britain manage to win this battle?’, the answer seems to lie less with the speed and agility of the aircraft i.e. the Spitfire and the Hurricane versus the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and more on the fact that Luftwaffe aircraft (fighters and bombers) would run low on fuel and be forced to head home after ten or twenty minutes of engagement. There were also strategic errors on the German side: they should have realised the difficulty of flattening enough airfields to disable RAF operations, and they should have focused their bombing on eliminating Spitfire manufacture. Was German intelligence good enough? Maybe not; they seemed to have under-estimated the size and strength of their enemy.

By the summer of 1941 Hitler abandoned his plans to invade Britain; Wellum’s squadron participated in ‘sweeps’ over occupied France escorting Blenheim and Stirling bombers in an effort to take war to the enemy. That summer Wellum was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In September 1941 he is told he is ‘over the hill’ (although he’s just 20 years old); he is gutted. He was taken off duty from Squadron 92 and posted to a training squadron, flying Hurricanes. But there’s a final twist to his story: he resumed action to become a Flight Commander and in July 1942 he is sent to Glasgow for the top-secret Operation Pedestal – a convoy mission to carry supplies to the besieged garrison at Malta. He commands a flight of eight Spitfires operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, sailing from the Clyde. This account occupies 30 pages of the 338-page book, but for some of us it was even more interesting than the Battle of Britain – it tells an incredible story we never knew, despite our recent family holidays in Malta.

We pondered the title First Light. Where does it come from, and what does it mean? Squadron 92 was often scrambled early in the morning, in the silent beauty of dawn, aka First Light, but with the fear and apprehension of flying eastward, blinded by the low sun and presenting the aircraft as easy targets for the oncoming Luftwaffe fighters.

The short Epilogue describes the physical and mental fatigue when it is all over. He is still a young man. He recovers and become a test pilot, remaining in the RAF until 1961. Civilian life may not have agreed with him, he suffered business failure and divorce. He settled down to become a deputy harbour-master in Cornwall; he lived to the age of 96 (he died in 2018).

1Ricks, T.E. 2017 Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. Penguin.

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.