Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath

We gathered on a Thursday evening in South Edinburgh to tackle one of the most feted books in American literature, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. To the disappointment of one of our number this wasn’t a Star Trek sequel, but a story of the Great Depression, of the exodus from the dust bowls of Oklahoma and neighbouring states to California in search of fruit picking in the promised land. Clearly, this had timely echoes in current economic migration within Europe.

The proposer had not read much American literature, with the exception of Steinbeck and Hemingway (covered elsewhere in our blogs). He noted that Steinbeck was a great literary figure, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, and found this book well worthy of the accolades. There was digression to talk of Steinbeck’s fascination with Camelot, encapsulated in a posthumous publication, ‘The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”. Is there a connection? Maybe this exists in the depiction of ‘noble peasants’ within The Grapes of Wrath.

Our proposer noted that Steinbeck was anti-business, anti authoritarian, and this wasn’t exactly surprising given his body of work and this book in particular. The book was widely acclaimed when it came out, yet criticised by some as an inaccurate socialist polemic, for example by the California Farmers Association. In passing, we noted that those who instigated the original clearances in Oklahoma seemed to somehow escape with lesser censure. Maintaining the anti-authoritarian posture, Steinbeck shows how the authorities supported the farmers against the immigrants. However there is reference to the ability to get relief and the setting up of Federal camps. It was suggested that the unsympathetic portrayal of business and authority was largely accurate, and one could draw parallels with the use of illegal workers now, although the practices depicted were legal in 1939. Sanora Babb, whose notes from employment within the Farm Security Administration were used by Steinbeck, would add support to the Steinbeck thesis. Her own, consequent book wasn’t published until 2004, having been gazumped by the Steinbeck novel in 1939.

Another member found the book harrowing, relentless, employing a style of writing which reflects the relentless pressure on the immigrants. The only uplifting factor in the book is the indomitable human spirit of the migrant workers. Steinbeck juxtaposed the story of the Joad family and their co-travelers with the overall historical descriptions of the Great Depression as a very clever structural component. He highlighted the gap between the American dream and the American reality.

The next speaker went further. It is just too long and relentless. There was a lack of light and shade, the text lost its pace, and sometimes went flat. He had read it firstly as a youth, then finding it boring, but now appreciated it more. Nevertheless, he did not join in the generally favourable criticism, even now.

Inevitably, the major issues are universal and pertinent today. Today, Western Europe is regarded by some as new land of milk and honey, but nevertheless there are food banks and illegal worker exploitation as noted above. (Strangely as I write this note after a long dry spell there are stories of a lack of migrant workers to pick fruit, post Brexit referendum, and the gaps are not being filled by the local population.) Having said that, there is considerable social buffering in comparison with the 1930s and allegedly the gap between rich and poor may be decreasing, although that probably depends on how you interpret the statistics. In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants were treated almost as a sub-human species; is that the case in the UK or Europe today? One suggested that the Brexit referendum result was caused by illogical fear and panic rather than rational debate based on sound arguments put forward by politicians (Surely not! –  Ed.). If alive today, Steinbeck would still find ample subject matter for some new books.

So, in this text, the California farmers don’t get a good press. What of the depiction of the migrants themselves? In general, not all migrants are noble, law-abiding and upstanding citizens, are they? Some are good, some bad, as with any section of population. One questioned the lack of aspiration of the migrants; perhaps they should raise their horizons? Are they ‘losers’ to quote the current US president? Au contraire, many migrants to the UK are highly educated and aspiring and many sectors of the economy, such as the high technology business, and public service, such as the NHS, are very dependent on such citizens. OK, there is some mention of aspirations to study vehicle maintenance but no real practical effort to fulfill these aims. Ah yes, said another, but this a polemic, not a balanced argument. It is quite justifiable to argue case with considerable bias. In some countries, revolutions occurred; here, there are references to the formation of labour movements, strikes etc., but these are peripheral to the main threads.

“Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”

There is an emphasis on family, and on the mother figure, Ma Joad, who holds the family together with such emphasis. Religion is a target of the book, it is implied that religion is a thing of the past, explicitly stated for Jim Casy. The references to religion are quite controversial.

“Maybe there ain’t no sin, there ain’t no virtue… It’s just what people does… Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice … And that’s all any man’s got a right to say…”.

Can they, should the California farmers feed the world? Should fruit picking not be mechanized? Progress is the elephant in the room and to what extent is a job a job for life?  The Steinbeck solution is, arguably, unworkable, you cannot turn Californian land over to small peasant farmers and feed the country. A car salesman is also portrayed as dishonest; there is a reference to taking a rotten and a god half cucumber and joining then together with a matchstick. Is there no such person as an honest salesman or benevolent farmer?  Again, one emphasised that this book is a polemic and therefore one shouldn’t expect balance or unbiased thinking. This contributor loved the sentimentality of the narrative, he felt empathy with people who work on the land, the gnarled sons of the soil, the salt of the earth, romanticised and self-indulgent. This was absolutely justified in this opinion.

Was there an absence of humour, was the subject too serious for humour? There were occasional passages that raised a smile, as when Tom tricked the driver, The Indian half breed regretted he wasn’t a whole breed as he missed benefits. One called it a misery memoir – that word ‘relentless’ cropped up again.

As the evening drew on, the talk turned to the possible soundtrack of the book, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Lonnie Donnegan, Merle Haggard, …

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee …. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free..”

Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie (the Oklahoma poet!), …

“The highway is alive tonight, Where it’s headed everybody knows, I’m sitting down here in the campfire light, With the ghost of old Tom Joad”

Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Country Music – right wing, south of the Mason Dixon line. Poor white music, three chords and the turn.

“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip, When you make that California trip, Get your kicks on Route sixty six”

To conclude, most thought the novel worthy of the ‘great’ accolade, but this was not the unanimous view. Those who could make the comparison thought this his best book. Is he a good writer? One called the descriptive passages excellent, with dialogue that made the characters believable. Opinion was always divided. An absent colleague was in no doubt, describing the work as a masterful piece of literature. The story romped on, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens next. The ending was controversial but interpreted as hope for the future and of inbred humanity through Rose of Sharon….hoping for a child but giving her milk to a dying stranger at the end.

… and we missed the England – Belgium game…..

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Smith, Ali: Autumn

Ali Smith was born in 1962, in Inverness. She studied English at the University of Aberdeen and then enrolled for a PhD at the University of Cambridge (1985 to 1990) but started writing plays and consequently did not complete her degree.  Some of her plays were staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Cambridge Footlights. She came to Edinburgh and worked as a lecturer of Scottish, English and American literature at the University of Strathclyde. Now she lives in Cambridge, writes novels and publishes articles in The Guardian, The Scotsman, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement. 

Published in 2016, this is her 8th novel. It’s the story of a life-long friendship between a woman and a much older man. The friendship begins when Elisabeth, a child of eight, meets a senior neighbor uDaniel Gluck. They get talking, and the conversation will last until he dies at the age of 101 in an old peoples’ home. It’s a book that is somewhat unsettling, and often divided the opinions of our members.

An over-arching idea emerging from the book is the non-linearity of time. This reminded us of a novella by Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat, which we read last month. Of course, time proceeds relentlessly. It ticks by and we grow older and wiser, and the book certainly deals with aging and learning as they relate to the human condition. In the physical sense (notwithstanding Einstein!) time is linear and therefore can be measured with a clock.  We use the clock to regulate our lives. But memory doesn’t work like that. It jumps about. We frequently time-travel in our imagination. Certain episodes are recalled: some tragic and some comedic events stand out, and certain things become confused. We remember low points and highlights – they come to us in flashbacks, and that’s how this novel is structured.…yes, it can be confusing, dream-like, chaotic and with frequent digressions.  Does it matter?  It matters not in art, poetry or music, but perhaps in a novel it does matter. Does a novel need narrative drive to sustain interest? Half of us confessed to having read the book twice in an effort to trace the story.

Sometimes the text reads as poetry. The EU referendum has just taken place and Elisabeth (or is it Ali) says:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.

This passage, and more that follow, has the rhythm and power of poetry, and exposes the raw nerve of divided contemporary Britain. The New Yor Times called the book the “First Great Brexit Novel”.

Smith doesn’t pull her punches. She uses digressions (flashbacks) to tilt at bureaucracy, the establishment and ‘normality’. Elisabeth’s efforts to get her passport photo approved by the Post Office are comical, but the episode is part of her attack on the hopelessness of the individual in the face of overblown bureaucracy. Likewise, we may smile at the encounter with the medical receptionist. These sections refer to the middle part of life when we are forced to comply to ludicrous norms. And there are the sinister scenes at the metallic fence: we don’t actually know what the fence is for. Is it a detention centre for illegal refugees?   Or a metaphorical fence, standing for one of the many we come across in everyday life. One member took a historical view and saw it as a reference to the Enclosure Acts 1700–1801. The question of immigration is here, reinforced by Daniel’s past as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Smith saves the best until nearly the end when she launches a crusade against the art establishment of the 1960s, exposing the male domination of the pop-art scene and the rejection of the real-life artist Pauline Boty (who turns out to have been one of Daniel’s girl-friends).  You don’t have to be a feminist to believe that women’s talents have been ignored by the all-controlling male establishment. And Boty’s work is the visual analogue to Smith’s literary style – both are collage. However, Smith is widely accepted as a creative writer whilst Boty, back in the 60s, was overlooked as a creative painter because only men were assumed to hold such talent.

The first chapter is possibly the most perplexing part of the book: it’s the end of the story but placed at the beginning. But what does it mean? Has Gluck arrived in heaven? Is it rebirth? Or is it a dream of re-kindled youth that he’s having in old age? This part is highly imaginative and makes riveting reading. In fact, the whole book is a tour de force of imagination – and the subject matter is a rare portrayal of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman in which the male is not a potential sexual predator.

One or two members felt the author was trying too hard to show how clever she can be. There are lots of literary allusions –  the opening sentence echoes Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and there are references to John Keats’s To Autumn and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.  Ovid, Shakespeare, Blake and Huxley are in there too.

Almost all of us grimaced at the awful puns – for example the ‘patient smile’ of the medical receptionist.

One of our members, who couldn’t attend has sent written comments that summarise the book very well:

….it’s less a classic novel than a poetic and political entertainment, and indeed a sort of crazy hymn to life. It conveys very effectively the feeling of things just happening, and the scope and variety of a human life – through the vast age of Daniel. The interplay between Daniel and Elizabeth is moving – as indeed is E’s relationship to her mother.

Autumn is the first of four seasonal ‘state of the nation’ novels promised by the author. Some of us have already ordered Winter for our summer reading, and one or two may be eagerly awaiting Spring and Summer.  Perhaps Summer will come before Spring. But others will steer clear.  It will be interesting to see whether the author can sustain the energy levels required to complete the set.

Spark, Muriel: The Driver’s Seat and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

After some long books, we had two short (but major) novels to read this month. Muriel Spark was recently placed by a Times survey in the eighth position among the top fifty British writers of the 20th century. This is her centenary year, celebrated at the National Library of Scotland by an exhibition, The International Style of Muriel Spark (until 13 May 2018), which some of the group had visited. (There will also be a dramatisation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by David Harrower, at the Donmar Warehouse, London from 4 June to 28 July.)

The proposer gave a full and informative account of Spark’s life and career. Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 in a liberal-minded family, the daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish father and an English mother, she attended the fee-paying James Gillespie’s School. Not wanting to go to university, she taught English and worked as a secretary before marrying Sidney Oswald Spark, 13 years her senior, with whom she moved to Southern Rhodesia. Her marriage was an unhappy one, as were her relations with her one son, but although she left her husband, she was obliged by the war to stay in Rhodesia until 1944. Returning to Britain, she worked as administrator and editor at the Poetry Society in London (where she was involved in some fierce rows). It was only in 1951 that she made her debut as a fiction writer, winning the Observer short story prize for her story ‘The Seraph and the Zambezi’. Thereafter she produced a steady stream of highly acclaimed novels, moving first to New York and then to Tuscany, where she lived with her friend Penelope Jardine until 2008. She had converted to Catholicism in her 30s (there was later a lot of discussion of her religious position in relation to the Calvinism of her childhood). She was an obsessive hoarder of documents, many of them now in the National Library. Fond of cats, she liked to compare herself to a cat.

There were written comments from three members of the group who had to be absent, including a detailed discussion of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (PMJB) – these are integrated into the account that follows.

PMJB is the most famous of Spark’s novels (largely because of the film version with Maggie Smith), but The Driver’s Seat (DS) was reportedly her own favourite. Inevitably the discussion centred on PMJB, which was much better known – though some members were reading it for the first time, having previously seen the film (Maggie Smith version).

Everyone agreed about the quality of Spark’s writing, its brevity, unexpectedness, the brilliant, often cynical turns of  phrase – you feel you are in good hands when you start one of her novels. As one member said, ‘a confident, poised writer at the height of her powers’. Spark saw herself as a poet (the word is on her gravestone), won a poetry prize at the age of 14, and continued to write poetry – her prose shows a poet’s sense of language. There was some discussion as to whether it came across as spontaneous writing; this was the impression it left with some readers – as if she wrote quickly and didn’t revise – but others felt that we were dealing with a more deliberate strategy, as seen in certain types of repetition, or in the highly worked ending of DS.

Both novels also showed a very personal way of dealing with time. In both there are repeated ‘flash-forwards’ to an ending which is more dramatic, or violent, or tragic than the early scenes. Spark is not so much aiming to create suspense as to suggest, (especially in PMJB) the impact of passing time. In DS this treatment of time raises troubling questions about free will and determinism – it was suggested that the end, with its repetition of ‘fear and pity, pity and fear’, is an echo of classical tragedy, where fate and action are intertwined.

The discuss of PMJB inevitably centred on the figure of Miss Brodie , ‘an intriguing mixture of free thinking and convention’ and the puzzles she sets the reader. Impressions were inevitably influenced by the memory of Maggie Smith’s brilliant performance in the 1969 film (about which Muriel Spark is said to have had mixed feelings)  On the one hand she is a force of life, set against the stifling Calvinist atmosphere of a certain Edinburgh (as represented by the well-named Miss Gaunt); she fascinates her girls, opens up their minds to history, art and literature (in her own idiosyncratic way), marking some of them for life. But in exerting such a strong influence on them, in trying for instance to make Jenny her surrogate lover for Teddy Lloyd, she can be seen as a malevolent figure, perhaps Satanic – and she herself insists on her link with the double-faced Deacon Brodie, rebel and reprobate. It was remarked that she is in a line of teacher figures in literature, which also includes figures in Alan Bennett’s The History Man and the film Dead Poets’ Society. Several of the group remembered similarly charismatic teachers from their schooldays. In the words of one of us, heaven help us if we have teachers like this!’

If Jean Brodie is Satan, she is also Christ, betrayed by one of her disciples. Why does Sandy betray her mentor? There were several suggestions: envy (the desire to cut down the tallest poppy), religious feeling (like Muriel Spark, Sandy is converted to Catholicism), perhaps politics. It was noted that we get always a child’s-eye vision of the teacher, a subject of fascination, a mystery. The author doesn’t tell us what to think.

An important aspect of the book was the depiction of Edinburgh in the 30s, and more generally of inter-war Europe. Edinburgh is depicted – yet again – as a place of contradictions, douce but also harsh; there was some doubt about whether Miss Brodie’s walk through the Old Town, with its depiction of poverty, hardship and menace, was really integrated into the book. Another point of difference was whether this could be called a feminist novel – certainly it showed the constraints weighing on women at the time (no married women allowed to teach, for instance), but was Miss Brodie a feminist heroine?

One question occupied many of us: the relation between the novel and Muriel Spark’s own experience. In the discussion there were quite a few reminiscences of school days. The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is obviously based on James Gillespie’s School , and we know that Miss Brodie is modelled on Spark’s teacher Christina Kay, though in several respects she is different – younger, an admirer of Hitler etc. For an account of Miss Kay, see the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2008) – the forthcoming second edition will also contain an entry for Muriel Spark.

On The Driver’s Seat, opinion was more divided. It was seen as ‘mad’ and ‘chaotic’, but also fascinating. The proposer indicated that the story was based on a newspaper account of a real incident in Italy. It is like a detective story, though in Spark’s words not a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘whydunnit’ in which the end is foreshadowed throughout the story but never really explained. We noticed that the heroine Lise is unfailingly seen from the outside, with no direct access to her thoughts and feelings – just her words and actions, her facial expressions and body movements. Clues are scattered around – maddeningly, for some – and the final murder is announced well in advance; it becomes clear that, with her outlandish costume and disconcerting behaviour, Lise wants to make herself a murder victim – but why? The book’s title raises the question of control and direction – is Lise in the driver’s seat? Or if not her, who? The novel seems to suggest a wild, unpredictable world waiting to engulf ‘normaility’.  But in spite of the sinister tone and the improbable story, most of us enjoyed it, the deadpan and funny description of the absurdity of character and action. Like all Spark’s novels it is short, and repays rereading.

Apart from Edinburgh reminiscences, discussion stuck pretty much to the texts – clearly a good choice for the programme. One critical note – to be conveyed to the publisher? – the unsuitable covers for both the novels in the Penguin editions – as in their current Simenon series, a taste for pictures of headless women. Better go for the centenary Muriel Spark edition produced by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

Frankopan, Peter: The Silk Roads

The proposer had read this book when it came out in 2015 and had won much praise and awards.  He considered it one of the best world histories ever written. There are many of these but they are mostly ‘one damn thing after another’ to quote AJP Taylor’s view of history. This one was much superior. It is a popular, accessible work but based on up-to-date academic research.

Peter Frankopan is a Croat by background. He is Professor of Global History at Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He has written a book on the First Crusade and has translated the diary of Anna Commenus.  He has worked on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Christian/Islam relations.

The major theme of the book as evidenced by the title is the importance of trade as a driver of history. War and religion have often been emphasized by historians.  Frankopan shows that trade and economic factors are often the most important drivers even when the justification is often religion or war. For example Frankopan emphasizes the importance of economic issues during the Crusades, including continued Christian /Islamic trading, and the important economic motives of Italian cities including the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians.

His section on the Mongols was an excellent revision of the traditional view of the warlike Mongols emphasising how good they were as traders and administrators.

The book demonstrated that places on the Silk Roads were producers of goods as well dealers in trade.

That economics is a prime driver of history is not simple Marxism. It was a major theme of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and writers such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.

One of our number unable to be present had provided an excellent summary and analysis of the chapter on the C14th plague which we know as the Black Death. This is included as an annex to this note. In this context it is worth mentioning also Frankopan’s account of the devastating effects on the Roman/Byzantine Empire of the plague in the 540s when Justinian was making good progress to restore the whole Roman Empire. The role of climate change was recognised as a factor. The world was likely due another pandemic.

The book had another theme, namely that the British and Europeans have been too Eurocentric in their understanding of history.  The legacy of the study of Greek and Roman culture was a major cause. A recent survey showed that 2/3rds of historians in the UK researched only European history and many only British. This represented a decline from earlier times explained partly by the decline in study of languages.

As Frankopan shows, the coastal countries of Western Europe only became important after the discovery of America and the sea route to India ‘the greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’ to quote Adam Smith, though perhaps he can also be accused of over Eurocentrism.

This mattered because the prevalent historical narrative influences present opinion. The extent of Anglo- centrism and Anglo-exceptionalism can be see most recently in the Brexit vote though the Brexiteers might not express it in those terms. An important message of the book was that the age of European and US dominance was ending and power returning to the countries of the Silk Roads. Global history needed to be taught, not just European.

There was general agreement that the book was a brilliant synthesis of material that filled in many gaps in the knowledge of members, even including those who had studied history. It was well written but covered so much material that it required steady careful reading. The statistics were impressive in scope and detail, e.g. on GDP in India compared to the West in C17th and oil production statistics in C20th.

Changes in goods sought after was well covered, from luxuries such as gold, silver and silk to oil. The quest for control of goods, eg oil in the last 150 years was well illustrated as a basis of conflict between Russia and Britain both in World War I and later. Future conflicts would likely continue to centre on natural resources, including energy and water, particularly as such resources were running out.

It was a remarkable analysis and synthesis of up-to-date academic research. Those members who had knowledge of various aspects of the history could find nothing with which to find fault. For example, although it was highly critical of the impact of European states, and later the USA, on other countries this was no longer a contentious but mainstream view. Man’s inhumanity to man was a constant theme throughout the historic period covered whichever group was in the ascendant.

The book was an important corrective to the prevailing Westerncentric history with which members had been taught. It was vital to understand the importance of the East over the centuries as Western dominance was giving way again to Eastern.

There were some criticisms of the book.

The maps were not very good given the wide-ranging subject area.

Initially the author stuck closely to his title but at times the Silk roads link became a little tenuous though he returned to the area in more recent times.

The role of women was insufficiently recognised. One of our members explained that business had traditionally been the province of Mongol women while the men were away fighting and he instanced a recent negotiation with a Mongolian business, of which he was aware, in which all the leading executives were female.

There was no acknowledgement of previous historians who had attempted a similar approach, e.g. Frederick Braudel’s ‘ Civilisation and Capitalism’, albeit with a narrower geographic and temporal focus.

Overall these were minor criticisms of what was an extremely impressive work.

Appendix: 

What an eye-opener! Written in beguilingly easy prose, this was endlessly interesting, despite the potentially weighty and academic nature of his subject.

I have learnt lots from it, particularly of course the importance of the East over the centuries. I was particularly struck by:

  • the material on European slavery,
  • the insights into the reality of the Crusades, which I understand is Frankopan’s original academic specialism,
  • the account of the development  of the Muslim Empire,
  • and the history of the Italian City States.

I guess this is popularising of solidly based academic studies, rather than original academic work, but there is nothing wrong with that.

I was intrigued by how he manages to hold my attention on subjects that would normally have me nodding after a few minutes. To study his writing techniques I looked more closely at a representative section, that on the Plague.

It starts with a well- turned surprise: “The most  important effect that the Mongol conquests had on the transformation of Europe, however,….[was] an outbreak of plague… The Mongols had not destroyed the world, but it seemed quite possible that the Black Death would.”

Then there is scientific analysis of how it spreads: “fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding”.

Then there is the effect of climate change on flea numbers.

There follows a gruesome section about a Mongol army dying of plague in “thousands and thousands every day,” according to a commentator, but before withdrawing catapulting the corpses into the besieged city.

The trading highways now became lethal highways for transmitting the Black Death.

So many died in England that the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for confession of sins.

A contemporary source reckons scarcely a tenth of the population survived.

It reaches Mecca despite the Prophet promising plague would never reach the holy cities of Islam.

Another quote comes from a source, about dogs tearing at the corpses piled up against the mosques.

Taxpayers in one region of Egypt fell from 6,000 to 116.

Boccaccio claims 100,000 lost their lives in Florence.

There was a sense of impending apocalypse – raining frogs, snakes and lizards – giant hailstones killing people by the dozen.

Avoid sex and every fleshly lust with women urged a Swedish priest. Women must wear less revealing clothes said an English priest, as they were wearing short garments that “failed to conceal their arses or their private parts”.

Jews were considered to be the cause in Germany and vicious pogroms carried out.

An estimate suggests around 25 million dead out of a 75 million population.

Scientific work on other plagues suggests the key determinant is not the density of human population but the density of the rat population.

But – another surprise for the reader – the plague turned out to be the catalyst for profound social and economic change. The transformation provided an important pillar in the rise of the West. the shortage of labour empowered the peasantry against the propertied classes. Demand for luxury goods soared with wider spread of wealth and younger demographic, and European textile trade takes off.

Research on skeletal remains in graveyards shows that a rise in wealth led to better diet and health. The post- plague life expectancy was much higher.

Women got the chance to become wage earners, and marry later – check out the quote from advice to women by female Dutch poet. There was a developing work ethic in Northern Europe to counteract geographical position.

Hence, in this appendix, are quoted the main elements of this relatively short section  simply to demonstrate the tremendous range and skill of Frankopan. He blends scientific and economic analysis with striking contemporary quotations from literary, religious and other sources, all within a strong, compelling and very well informed narrative. Finally, he is always happy to spice things up with a liberal sprinkling of sex and violence!

Harris, Robert: Conclave

HEADLINE: great entertainment and a page-turner……but not to be taken seriously.

SPOILER ALERT: Reader beware! If you read further, key elements of the plot will be revealed.

Someone rash enough to be walking the chilly streets of Edinburgh late on a dark January evening might have been surprised to see white smoke suddenly emerging from a chimney. What could it be? Surely not some sort of imitation papal conclave?

Perhaps venturing nearer, the sounds of uproarious conversation and laughter would make this seem less likely, and peering through a chink of the curtains at the huddle of decidedly un-Cardinal-like figures and the litter of bottles the walker would turn and go on his or her way, with the mystery unsolved.

But they would have been closer to the truth than they realised. For it was the Monthly Book Group in full swing, and they had just reached a consensus, recorded above, on “Conclave”, the 2016 novel by Robert Harris. This takes as its apparently unpromising theme of the election of a new Pope.

Coming from a modest background, Harris read English at Cambridge, and rose to become President of the Union and editor of “Varsity”. He then joined the BBC to work on current affairs, moving at 30 to become political editor of the Observer. This background in English, current affairs and journalism may help to explain his development into a very gifted writer, particularly of historical novels. He has an outstanding ability for gripping story-telling combined with an ability to absorb research and produce books at great speed.

Everyone enjoyed the book and found it a real page-turner. But everyone had reservations of various kinds, and was disappointed when they compared the book with “An Officer and a Spy” (discussed October 2014).

One reader suggested that Harris was less good when freewheeling in pure fiction, and much better when constrained to follow historical fact as in his novels about Cicero or Dreyfus. As is common in the creative process, constraint can paradoxically liberate the imagination.

We were impressed by the volume of research into the arcane Conclave processes that Harris had carried out, and the access he had gained in the Vatican and elsewhere to help him do this. However, many – though not all – felt that the book was slowed down by the need he seemed to feel to incorporate so much research. We also wondered if C.P. Snow’s “The Masters”, about the election of a new master at a Cambridge College, had been an influence on Harris.

All the action happened within a Conclave shut off from the world, creating a similar enclosed feel to an Agatha Christie detective novel, so often set in a remote country house, or to a play with only one set. Indeed, rather like a detective novel, it had a formulaic feel, as the reader was sucked into the plot by wondering which candidate would win the Papacy as each vote unfolded, and as there was a succession of twists as front-runner after front-runner was unseated by an unsavoury revelation.

Many of the main characters, essentially the papal candidates coming from different continents, were pretty one-dimensional, and not far from burlesque or caricature. They were portrayed with fairly gentle satire.

Part of the fun is that many of the candidates are absolutely desperate to become Pope. They pursue that objective by using the dark arts of politicians, and, in one case, the type of bribery more commonly associated with FIFA. Our discussion coincided with the newspaper report of a psychological study that showed that those rising to the top of large organisations tended to have psychopathic (distinctly unchristian!) character traits.

But at the same time we are allowed inside the mind of Cardinal Lomeli, the Pope’s Dean and chief administrator who is running the Conclave. We observe much of the action through Lomeli’s stream of consciousness.

Lomeli is a well-drawn character, suffering from a crisis of faith yet still religious, determined to do the right thing, without personal ambition, and believing that God may want him to play a role in finding the right Pope. There is a fine passage in which Lomeli goes past the painting of the Last Judgement feeling like one of the damned himself – this is the sort of thing that lifts Harris above run of the mill thriller writers. And Lomeli is also allowed a line in ironic wit:

Once God explained all mysteries. Now He has been usurped by conspiracy theorists. They are the heretics of the age...”

who had the advantage of seeming to be American without the disadvantage of actually being one…

In the United Kingdom – that godless isle of apostasy, where the whole affair was being treated as a horse race – the Ladbrokes betting agency made Cardinal Adeyemi the new favourite…

an excess of simplicity, after all, was just another form of ostentation, and pride in one’s humility a sin...”

The Book Group comprises a wide range of attitudes to religion – from practising Christians to those who view religion as a system of control that delivers riches and power for those at the top.

The practising Christians noted that there little of substance about the role of prayer in such a Conclave. Admittedly Lomeli had the religious consciousness and often resorted to prayer, but the content of his prayers was not shown. They were fairly confident Harris was an atheist, despite the subtle portrait of Lomeli.

A Catholic made the telling point that most recent Popes had been reluctant to take up the office, a world away from the author’s assumption that Cardinals behaved like Westminster politicians. Despite these disappointments they, like the rest, found the book a great page-turner of a political thriller. However, the book was really about politics, not religion.

On the other side,  “The Vatican Map Room” thundered one of our atheists, “is more like a War Room than a Map Room”.

There followed an interesting, if not illuminating, debate about the religious beliefs of Harris. Most but not all thought him an atheist, who went to considerable efforts to disguise this through creating the internal life of Lomeli, and was anxious not to offend the Church too much.

In the end, we resorted to the sacrilegious device of Google to scrutinise his beliefs, and found this comment he made in an interview with the Catholic Herald “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist”. So…not an atheist……..or rather not a complete atheist……or…… good at political replies?

The Catholic Herald gives Harris a good review: “More than an intelligent thriller: it reveals the dilemmas we all face…. Its author clearly has engaged with the Church.” By contrast the Irish Times finds “only black smoke blowing through the literary chimney.

The final “twist” of the book – a word usually used for detective stories – comes when the well-deserved winner of the contest is suggested to be genetically female, but inter-sexual.  This was too much for us. This was not so much gentle satire as farce. Harris had already gently chided the church for its sexism by his portrayal of the undervalued nuns, but here was a crashing of the gears and a full frontal attack.

Our experts were soon on the case, however, with our medical adviser judging that it was indeed possible that the true gender of the new Pope had been missed in [her] upbringing in the Philippines.

And our historical adviser pointed out that this plot element was not as strange as it seemed, given that, at least according to protestant mythology, Pope Ioannes Anglicus (855-857) was a woman disguised as a man (“Pope Joan”). For many centuries thereafter a pierced chair (“sedia stercoraria”) was used to check that a newly elected Pope was indeed male prior to confirming his appointment.

Suitably aghast we wandered around some of the details of the book – such as being pleasantly surprised about the lack of smart phones being brought into the Conclave (although later research shows that the Pope does have a Facebook page!) – before returning to agree a conclusion.

The white smoke was made ready as we agreed that this was a great entertainment and page-turner, but not a great book. On closer examination not so much an inter-sexual Pope as an inter-genre novel emerged, with elements of political thriller, serious stream of consciousness character portrayal, caricature, detective story and high farce welded, somewhat uneasily, together.

It did not do to look too closely. As one member observed: “I thoroughly enjoyed it as a page-turner. But I was left with the feeling of having eaten a fast-food takeaway, not a substantial meal!

Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute: a Fighter Pilot in World War 1

The proposer of this book likes military history, but has only recently been reading about the war in the air. A friend had recommended this book as being the very best account of aerial combat during World War I. It is based on real diary extracts and letters of the 22-year old pilot (now the author), written to his young wife in the periods between skirmishes over the trenches in search of the Hun.

We noted that many years elapsed between the events described and the publication of the book in 1968, and we guess there has been much editing and lapses of memory, with perhaps a stiffening of the author’s opinion. Perhaps even some exaggeration? On the other hand a letter to a loved one at home might accentuate the positive and gloss over some of the horrors (which would likely be removed by the censors). But horrors are there aplenty, and excitement too: at times the book resembles tales of that Boys Own favourite, Biggles but the action in No Parachute is real not imagined, and relates to action in the skies over the famous arenas of war: the Ypres Front, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, the Arras Front and the very important Battle of Cambrai.

It seems that Britain started making fighter aircraft too late. At the start of the war, aircraft were designed for reconnaissance, and especially for artillery observation.  Later, came the first real ‘fighters’: faster and more manoeuvrable, still doing reconnaissance work but also targeting enemy aircraft, strafing ground positions and going after tanks. This was the first time in history where aircraft fought each other, and so commanders and crew had scant idea of how to go about their task. Most pilots learned their skills ‘on the job’, with only basic prior training with no notion of the horrors of combat. British pilots received only 15-20 hours of flying experience before being posted to a squadron and being thrown into battle.

The diary begins on 18th May 1917 following a period when British planes were distinctly inferior to those being made in Germany and France. Casualties in the preceding April, known as ‘Bloody April’ had been especially high, and morale in the squadrons was low. The best British fighter plane at the start of the diary was the Sopworth Pup, which came into service in Autumn 1916 but had been outclassed by the latest German aircraft. The Pup was no match for the Fokker Triplane in the skilled hands of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and his ‘circus’ of highly experienced pilots. For example, the Fokker’s guns could fire rapidly through the arc of the propeller, but the Pup’s could not. Our pilots were aware that they were vulnerable, and wondered how long it would be before a better aircraft with decent weaponry would emerge, whilst young pilots with their all-too-brief training were being killed every day (at least, when weather permitted flying; often it didn’t). Overall, casualties on the British side were four times more than on the German side. The psychological challenge for pilots was immense: they were pitted against a superior force and they often questioned the ‘why?’ of war, having little notion of the strategic aspect of the ground fighting going on in the trenches below. But, by November squadron 46 (Lee’s squadron) received the first of the Pup’s successor, the Sopwith Camel. In good hands this was a much better fighting aircraft, being fast, manoeverable and with synchronised guns. It wasn’t perfect: the mass of the rotary engine was large in relation to the aircraft’s body, and so there was a tendency of the aircraft to twist and crash on take-off. Thus many novice pilots died before even becoming airborne.  One source claims that 413 pilots died in combat and a further 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes.

Pilots were hit and frequently crashed, sometimes scrambling out of the broken plane to the safety of allied forces and sometimes being taken as a prisoner of war. On other occasions they became ‘flamers’, and died in scorching agony or jumped from the plane to certain death. There was ‘no parachute’ and the author frequently asks ‘why?’. One belief was that the authorities in London thought pilots might bale out unnecessarily, thus wasting an aircraft.

Our author-pilot seems to have been a miraculous survivor, a statistical outlier. He has many near scrapes, his uniform is frequently holed (once the fuel tank is ruptured), his aircraft is often holed too, his joystick is hit, he survives many mechanical failures of the aircraft, and his gun frequently seizes up. He attributes his skill as a pilot to a longer training period than most – injury having delayed his transfer from training ground to active service. However, he takes rather a long time to claim his first kill, and altogether his tally is rather modest, only seven. Nevertheless he received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Captain. After the War he served in the newly formed Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an Air Vice Marshall.

The pilots – the ‘chaps’ or ‘fellows’ as they are generally called – have spare time when the weather is bad. They gather in the Mess, they sing bawdy songs – probably more bawdy than the ones published in the book – they binge-drink heavily and have headaches in the morning. They are mournful when their comrades are killed (the average survival of these pilots was only three weeks). Flying low, they see the wretched state of soldiers in the trenches and they feel thankful not to be one of them.

Indeed, flying these single-seater ‘kites’ could be fun, and the pilots experienced the great thrills of looping, the elation of fine-weather flying with blue sky above and ‘white lambswool clouds’ below, and the satisfaction of a perfect landing. It was cold up there, the cockpit was open to the weather, limbs and hands became numb. However, the Officers’ Mess was warm and cosy, a place of comradeship where friendships were formed, stories traded and backs slapped after a successful sortie.

We found the adventures riveting. We became engrossed and wondered how we ourselves would have fared in the cockpit of a Pup or Camel. One member had brought with him one of his own Biggles books, circa 1956, and we reflected on the differences between the Biggles author WE Johns and our No Parachute author AG Lee. It’s all there in Wikipedia. We learn that Johns, in contrast to Lee, was a very unlucky pilot, breaking several aircraft, and subsequently (or perhaps consequently) becoming an instructor. After brief active service he was shot down and became a prisoner of war. After the war he was a recruiting officer, but he famously rejected an application from TE Lawrence (of Arabia). All that’s a digression, but we in the book group are used to digressions.

Another member came to the meeting with a plastic model of the Sopwith Camel, a surprisingly neat little biplane. It is easy to see how it gave the Fokkers a hard time. Over 5000 real Camels were made at the Sopwith Aviation factory in the war.  Powered by a French 130 horsepower engine (about the same power as a family car today) they could reach 117 mph, more than the Pup’s 111 mph, whereas the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane could do only a paltry 103 mph. Except for some alloy skim near the engine, Camels were made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, hence the nickname of all such aircraft: ‘kite’.

We reflected on the difficulties of communication. The aircraft were not fitted with radio and so communication was achieved by hand signals, streamers and wing-wobbling. Ground radio did exist, and when a pilot crashed in allied territory a rescue party with technicians would arrive surprising quickly as messages could be sent. Feedback from the squadrons to the command in London may have been poor. One member pointed out that the Red Baron was better looked after, being brought home to a hero’s welcome of girls and bubbly, and encouraged to give feedback to aircraft manufacturers.

The language of the diary was ‘as expected’, but rather short of the pilots’ slang that has by now enriched the English vocabulary, sometimes to the dismay of foreigners who can’t understand what we are talking about. I tried to compose a sentence of slang to illustrate this (a good way to overcome my insomnia). What about ‘They tore a strip off him after he ditched his kite; he had caught a packet after a cock-up in a dog-fight that ended tits up’. Not poetic I admit, and I can’t find this particular sentence in the book. Probably most slang came later, from the RAF in WW2. Overall, the language sounds predominantly upper-middle class, and probably the pilots were recruited from the English public schools. I can’t verify this. Lloyd George seemed to imply they were. He said of the pilots ‘They are the knighthood of this war…they recall the legendry days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’. To this eloquence, Arthur Lee replies with a Churchillian turn of phrase ‘only occasionally were these …(pilots)… scions of the knightly families of Europe. They came from every social level, from the cities and countryside, from the streets and farms and forests of lands all over the world’.

By December the tone of the writing changes. Lee was by now tired, ill, to some extent disillusioned, and perhaps shell-shocked. He’s done 118 patrols with 56 combats. The Medical Officer said Lee needs a good spell of leave, and he is relieved of duties and sent home.

In an Appendix written years later he pours scorn on the decisions made by government authorities at the War Office in London, who had no experience of fighting aircraft, and were slow to pick up technical innovations. He identifies multiple failures of high command and rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the materials, engines and labour to supply the two separate air forces, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

We enjoyed the book immensely: the thrilling encounters, the insights, and the comment on why so many pilots were killed unnecessarily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harari, Yuval Noah: Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

Give us some Air!

Give us some Water!

Give us some Food!

Gimme Shelter!

Thanks, now I can check my Facebook account……

OK, this might be a slight over-simplification of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, or indeed a wildly inaccurate summary of Harari’s bestselling book, “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind”, but here we were, the book group assembled on a Thursday evening to try and satisfy their need for love and belonging. Not of Generation, X, Y or Z, nor even Millennials, we were old enough to remember the ‘60s and hence we presumably weren’t there.

The proposer told us of how he had come across this book at a science exhibition, at a stall womanned by Delta-T Devices, who “aim to manufacture and sell instruments for use in work beneficial to the environment and directly related to human and animal welfare.” A further description of their moral stance can be found at https://www.delta-t.co.uk/.   Such a policy was dear to the author’s heart, although perhaps less important to the hunter-gatherers of the first few chapters.

Now an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a PhD in Oxford in 2002, this book was published in Hebrew in 2011 and in English 2014 and has become an international success. The proposer described it as a “macro-history” painted with a very broad brush. We were grateful; at 498 pages for a macroscopic view, we suspect that the “micro-history” would have filled the Book Group’s schedule well beyond the period on Earth of the current membership. He praised its creativity and originality which had been recognised by a number of major and minor literary awards. He noted that the author had certain axes to grind, notably on animal rights (see above) and industrial farming, coloured perhaps by his vegan practice and living in a cooperative agricultural community. He was also openly gay and practised meditation. Ah yes, “I was a young man back in the 1960s”. As a rebuff to Generation I, he had also disposed of his smart phone!

Discussion opened out. Painted with a broad brush, I suppose it was inevitable that our members would pick holes. First to dive in was a member with knowledge of Australian history who pointed out inaccuracies on a number of key points on Aboriginal development. For example, on page 50 Harari talks of 200-600 tribes each with their own language, religion, norms and customs in the period between the cognitive and agricultural revolutions. Our member also disputed the suggestion that Australia was particularly white supremacist (p260). Another suggested that the extrapolation from bio-mimetic genetic algorithms (for optimisation in complex multimodal spaces) and genetic programming (p457) to machines taking over the world was rather fanciful, at least in the short term. The unfortunately quoted ‘human brain project’ had in fact been ‘rebooted’ due to the over-hyped claims. Another suggested that the opening line in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”,  referred to France in the mid to late 18th century, before not during the French Revolution. Several other examples were quoted. An absent member commented by email, that his  links, e.g. from Peugot to Shamens, are dubious or worse .He wondered too why… but we moved on.

However, right or wrong, can any single author, however advised by colleagues and his own research, hope to be wholly accurate on such a wide range of topics and academic disciplines? Can we? We recalled our August book by John Higgs; we thought that was sweeping and often contentious, and he only covered a single century! Do the alleged inaccuracies or dubious opinions invalidate the main thrust? 

The next speaker praised the book as an excellent synthesis of others’ research with a particular skill in simplifying complex topics for the general reader. As a good example of this, we referred to his discussions of economic theory in chapter 16, “The Capitalist Creed”. His breadth of coverage was “spellbinding” according to our speaker. He challenged current perspective without taking sides. Some questioned this, especially in view of the animal welfare polemic.

Our critic praised the idea of agriculture enslaving the population after a relatively Utopian hunter-gatherer existence. Again, this was questioned by another, suggesting that happiness and well-being as states of mind were relatively untouched, at least until page 421. “Are we happier?” Some were outraged by his discourse on chemical happiness in this chapter, and were rather dismayed that their imitative (Maslow) activities, whether Munro-bagging, global travel, or trying to get round a golf course in less than 100 shots were less than life-fulfilling. Unfortunately, Archaeology has not yet found a way to carbon date happiness and well-being from 70,000 years in the past so we can only speculate. (Afterthought: AI attempts to equip agents with imitative capabilities in order to build cooperative societies.)

Another compared Harari to a “spin doctor”, spinning his own perspective on historical fact or speculation according to his own rather than from an un-biased perspective. In the majority view, there was a shift from archaeological fact in the early chapters to a more opinionated spin in the later chapters. Another deficiency was the lack of acknowledgment of the role of the arts in enriching the human experience; when we do not spend our days wholly in hunting and gathering we have more time to appreciate the finer, esoteric outputs of the human mind and dexterity, in music, in painting and sculpture and so on. Is “Britain’s Got Talent” on tonight?

Turning to the later chapters, one of us was struck by the underlying pessimism about the future disappearance of our species, the cynicism and pessimism of reliance on chemical happiness and on “humans being turned into cyborgs” (p454). So the “curtain is about to drop on Sapiens history”. Certainly, humans do now have a probable capability for destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or social, unsurpassed due to the frantic rush to global communication and uniformity.  We pondered this pessimism and took it as a warning to cooperate at a global level rather than concentrate on local politics.  On the topics of individual survival and purpose, our email member suggested that the phrase “what do we want to want” was rather trite, referring to our stated, probably overstated aim to create amortal life by genetic engineering.

We turned again to Harari’s ideas on social bonding from an early stage of development, as for example in the ability to form large groups on the basis of shared values, to plan and carry out complex actions since the cognitive revolution, even when was no previous contact A parallel was drawn with recent work by Robin Dunbar at the Social and Evolutionary Research Science Group, also at Oxford.  In particular Dunbar mentioned that “the key function of music during its development and spread amongst human populations was its capacity to create and strengthen social bonds amongst interacting group members.” Our member talked of some of the key chemical differences between human and other brains, notably in fatty acid and iodine concentration. Apparently, there is an active debate as to whether aquatically sourced foods were key to human evolution, so that in general coastal species evolved preferentially. It is probably fair to say that none of those present had sufficient knowledge to decide, but that didn’t stop the discussion! However, one referred us to “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, arguing that apparent differences in societies in different societies today were a product of environment and opportunity, or luck if you like, rather than inherent genetic differences.

To stylistic matters; why did Harari always say “she” rather than “he”, or indeed an impersonal noun such as person, or even hunter/gatherer? Ah! That was virtue signalling said another. “Fair comment”, said one, in these politically correct times one must not only be virtuous but let everyone know to enhance your social standing. Your scribe hadn’t heard of virtue signalling, perhaps because he hadn’t the signal opportunity. Perhaps the author is taking his own social analysis just too seriously?

There is so much in this book, and indeed that is its strength, that our own discussion cannot help but be superficial and misinterpret and omit key themes. Perhaps his treatment of religion is controversial, by for example equating communism and nationalism with Christianity and Buddhism . His comments about the contradictions of humanism (e.g.  p257) are provoking; how many humanists today align themselves today with the Nazi view on evolution?

So in conclusion, the general verdict of the group was that this was a book well worth reading, progressing from fact to opinion as evolutionary time developed perhaps, but always stimulating and creating difference of opinion. Indeed, one had to agree with Barack Obama’s book cover comment that this was “interesting and provocative”.