Harari, Yuval Noah: Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow

A select company of three met to discuss this month’s book, a follow-up to our look at his previous work, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’.

Since we did not wish to diminish the scope of our discussion by 33.3%, we did not have a blogger for the evening.  Hence the notes that follow are a brief (briefer anyway than Yuval Noah Harari’s definition of the word) summary of the proposer’s preparatory notes.

The proposer felt that this is a book that invites discussion and debate.  Like ‘Sapiens’, it stimulated him to  run its ideas past whoever happened to be nearby when he was reading it.  It also stimulated reflection on his own life decisions.  The text is engagingly written, and frequently provokes the reader to interact with it, weighing the plausibility of the various arguments presented.

The first part of the book is to some extent a re-run of the content of ‘Sapiens’ – perhaps a necessary exercise in order to set a context for Harari’s account of the new projects of mankind.  He defines these new projects as immortality, happiness and divinity, and argues that famine, plague and war are largely problems whose solution now lies in our own hands, rather than being beyond our control.  These assertions, deliberately provocative, stimulated much discussion on the evening.

The writing throws up some great metaphors and similes.  For example: “terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop’ (they have to enrage a bull), or the illustrative use of the history of lawns.

Harari also uses catchy section headings that provide a memorable framework for his ideas – for example ‘Organisms are Algorithms’ and ‘Why Bankers are different from Vampires’.  The proposer also enjoyed the snippets of history and accounts of scientific experiments with which the writer illustrated his themes.  For example the Pharoahs’ creation of a huge artificial lake and the city of ‘Crocodilopolis’, and the experiment with rats placed in flasks of water (not so enjoyable for the rats, of course).

The cover of the paperback edition was not great in terms of graphic design, but the little thumbprint/electronic circuit image was a clever interpretation of one of the book’s important themes.  We noted too that it hinted at the shape of an acorn, also appropriate.  The use of images in the book itself, while sparing, is very effective.  The proposer particularly enjoyed the ‘Humanism in Five Images’ pages.

In conclusion, the proposer found the book somewhat overwhelming, in that each proposition opens up numerous new lines of enquiry.  However, by identifying the quests for immortality, happiness and divinity as themes for investigation, Harari provides a useful framework to combat passive or heedless acceptance of ‘the way things are going’.




Bythell, Shaun: The Diary of a Bookseller

Our evening commenced with one of our members, an emeritus professor, recounting his stressful day when he had lost his four-year-old grandchild whilst collecting his seven-year-old sibling from school. Fortunately, the “lollipop lady” had found him but our professor had been quite traumatised. Severely rebuked by his wife, he wished to talk. So we listened sympathetically and after a respectable time moved on to the evening’s main activity.

The proposer had chosen this book to give us some light summer reading. It had been recommended by a friend, as an amusing, short and easy holiday read.

He didn’t know too much about the author, as he hadn’t found too much about him “on line”.  However the book tells us that he had been brought up in Wigtown, the son of a farmer, had been sent way to public school. (Interestingly, four of our last five authors have strong Scottish connections.) Bythell remembered the bookshop opening in the 1980’s when he was 18 and thinking it wouldn’t survive a year. After attending Trinity College and leaving without his intended degree in law, he bummed about for a while, returning to Wigtown in 2001, aged 31, with no definite plans. He happened to visit the shop looking for a copy of Three Fevers. He confessed to the owner that he was struggling to find a job he enjoyed. The owner, who was keen to retire, persuaded Shaun to purchase it for £150,000. He regrets not reading George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories, which dispels the myth that selling second hand books is not the idyll many people think. Orwell’s comments “many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”

Wigtown, during the author’s childhood, had been a thriving county town with imposing County Buildings and a population of under a thousand folk, despite being isolated in the rural peninsula of the Machars, in southwest Scotland. A creamery and a whisky distillery had sustained the economy. With their closure around 1990, the economy of the town suffered greatly. However, in recent years, Wigtown had reinvented itself, with the establishment of a community of bookshops, small businesses, the reopening of the distillery and a successful book festival. It is now known as Scotland’s official Booktown. The Bookshop, the subject of the diaries, had grown to be the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland with 100,000 books spread over a mile of shelving. A few of the group had visited Wigtown, the book festival and the writer’s premises. One, having read the book, was keen to visit.

Those who worked in the shop commented that customer interactions produced ample material for a book. He started jotting down incidents as they happened and so his aide memoire became a diary.

The author provides an insight into the trials and tribulations of the second hand bookselling business. From his idiosyncratic Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, to a huge cast of eccentric customers, his buying trips to old houses and his insight into the workings of Amazon, the book is full of interest and amusement.

We all enjoyed his facetious, sarcastic and almost downright rude descriptions of staff and customers. The book, although in diary format, was easy to dip in and out of. It didn’t have a continuous narrative, like Arthur Gould Lee’s diary “No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I” we had recently read.

The author’s rudeness worked both ways with him giving as much as he received. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Some of our group felt that his discourtesy compared favourably with the late proprietor of a renowned hostelry in the south of Edinburgh. Others observed that he seemed less offensive about identifiable Wigtown locals than he was to anonymous visitors. Perhaps he didn’t wish to offend too many residents.

He ranked his customers accordingly.

  • The dream customer is the collector who buys £200 worth of illustrated poetry books.
  • A good customer is someone who buys even a single book without attempting to haggle the price down.
  • A bad customer doesn’t buy anything.
  • And a really bad customer gets their laptop out and shamelessly checks the bookshop’s prices against those listed on Amazon.
  • Then there are the customers who aren’t really customers – those waiting for the chemist up the road to fill their prescription, or for the garage to finish their car’s MOT.

The book is packed with amusing anecdotes, fascinating characters and insights into the second hand book business. The proposer’s friend who runs a second-hand furniture and book business in Kingussie knows many of the regular customers and they are real!

His Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, with a penchant for wearing home-stitched tabards or a black ski-suit, arriving late, stealing food from skips, sloppily eating her breakfast whilst driving her car, misfiling books and creating a mess in the shop, came in for a lot of stick. Despite this, he was totally reliant on her so that he could go off fishing, swimming and buying books. She was also of “value beyond measure” with her amusing remarks. When a customer asked if they had a “rest room” she replied “there’s a comfy seat by the fire if you need a rest”.

Some of the regular characters are Bum Bag Dave who carries at least two bum bags and various beeping electronic devices. Smelly Kelly who reeks of Brut 33 and relentlessly woos Nicky, Sandy, a pagan and the most tattooed man in Scotland who makes walking sticks for sale in the shop, and Mr Deacon, who doesn’t wear his well cut clothes well. “It appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him, and however they have landed upon him they have stuck”. Mrs Philips starts her phone calls with “ I am ninety three years old and blind, you know.” And of course we have the cats, his own black cat, “Captain” and a stray cat which was an unwelcome visitor and subsequently “had had his balls chopped off” by the Cats Protection League, much to his owners displeasure.

We enjoyed his brutally honest job reference he wrote for a former employee, Sara, following her discourteous request. This inevitably led the group to discuss the value of written references. References seem to be written differently depending on their country of origin, some being pretty bland whilst others are pretty frank. Telephone discussions seem more truthful.

One member questioned his annoyance at customers haggling. But “he’s in the haggling business”. Others were amazed by the amount of travelling he did.

One of our email contributors had thoroughly enjoyed the book and its different format. The portrayal of all the weird and wonderful characters he is surrounded by, both staff and customers, was most amusing and kept the book ticking along. The constant fight with online giants, particularly Amazon, gave the book bite and a bit of anger and it was good to see him kicking back. Witness “The best thing that could happen to Kindle”. Interestingly, of the six members attending this evening, only three had read a hard copy of the book. Two had read it on Kindle and one had listened to it on Audible. No one had shot their Kindle!

One member had considered opening a second hand bookshop but hadn’t taken it any further. He had also bought a book at a local Church of Scotland jumble sale “The Story of O” which he later discovered was all about sexual bondage. He was intrigued about the reading material of the congregation but felt his purchase had been excellent value at 10p! Others were less enthusiastic about running a second hand bookshop. Another found that some books could give off an unpleasant odour that he didn’t fancy. And yet another argued that he preferred books for their reading content and not their presentation or value. He didn’t see the point of having a first edition or a signed copy.

There was discussion of the author’s concern about his shop’s rating on social media. How accurate was it? One member had been a regular reviewer on TripAdvisor but had become sceptical of its value and had stopped contributing. He however felt that household equipment was now much more reliable thanks to customer feedback and consumer pressure. Another was concerned about the dominance of Amazon and had stopped using them, preferring to support local businesses. Another felt that time was our most valuable resource and Amazon allowed him speedy searching and purchasing.

Discussion moved onto the success of book festivals, the tourist invasion of Edinburgh, the proposal to have a tourist tax and even the shocking suggestion that Scottish football might move from Hampden to Murrayfield.

As our discussions drew to a close, our emeritus professor, still reeling from his earlier trauma, mentioned that on the journey home from the state primary school, the seven year old saw a sign outside a large educational building saying “Private School”. What does this mean? The trauma of the day was too much for our professor “Things will become clearer when you get older…”

Time to depart after thanking the host for providing some delicious home made brownie cakes.

Kassabova, Kapka: Border, a Journey to the Edge of Europe

Referring to an interview from the Scottish Review of Books, February 2018., we were advised that Kapka Kasssabova and her family emigrated to New Zealand after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She studied French at university, and began to make a name for herself as a poet and novelist. Some of her early poetry can be found in a collection entitled “Someone Else’s Life” (2003), which deals with people who live on the margins of society, the forgotten and dispossessed. This is clearly a major theme in the current book. After brief spells in Berlin and Marseilles, she settled in Scotland when she was thirty years old. She continued to work in different literary forms.

Talking of this month’s book, set on the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Kassabova said  “The trauma of half a century of social life based on lies is going to take several generations to heal, if it heals at all. That’s why I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.’ ‘Everything that I was discovering felt exciting, like some of the folk motifs. For instance, I had never witnessed fire-worship before. The way people spoke was a challenge, in terms of how to render it into English without losing the authenticity. The source languages were Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, with dialect variations. That’s why I ended up using some of the regional words, because they are a sensory part of the story of the landscape.”

At our meeting, the book encouraged a wide debate among the six members present. The title “Border” was used in two ways: as a crossing and on the periphery .  We thought that she had visited the area three times to compile her “stories” about the movement of peoples since 2000 BC backwards and forwards. In her lifetime the flow of people had reversed from the Iron Curtain blocking southerly passage to the current strong Turkish border blocking the Syrians northerly trek.

It was largely felt that the book was well written although some unusual words in the early part of the book made it hard work – thankfully the language became simpler – had she been trying to impress? One person was irritated by the use of “he said”, “she said”, “he said” in a short passage but it was pointed out that this may have been an attempt at rhyme which had been successful on page 192. She had also interspersed some short chapters to highlight issues and themes – not unlike Steinbeck the month before.

Her story unfolded through dialogues which were largely believable (did she make any up?) and were short and well controlled. The people interviewed were quirky (because only they remained in such a depopulated area?) and varied greatly from simple, friendly individuals to mystics and several rascals as well as bad people e.g. some border guards and smugglers. She was lucky to meet these people as they were dying out.

As ever in country areas, you found great acts of kindness and hospitality but also great selfishness and cruelty. On page 331 she becomes very romantic, idealising an old couple – “The true spirit of the Balkans that hangs on, no matter how renamed and resettled, imagined and invented. Our bitter beloved borderless Balkans”. Is this why she returned?

She used colour – Black Sea, Red Resort, White Wind etc – to display this simple world and her scenic descriptions were good, a list of pen pics but some felt that photos would have enhanced the book. It would have been interesting if we had compared mental pictures of the characters!

The many topics touched upon included mythology, historical names (Thrace means Europe), peoples (the Romas were detested apart from their music!), agriculture (tobacco and sheep were very important), politics (Bulgaria right wing again), religion (the Ottoman’s tolerated Christianity), mysticism, consumption (Raki/Rakia and sweet Ottoman Baclava etc) and the shifting zone between East and West, North and South, Europe and Not-Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Christianity and Islam, Balkan and Mediterranean, made it very interesting.

Her views are balanced, not taking sides apart from being anti Communist, but the book is difficult to categorise. It has been described as a travel book but her route is untraceable. Someone related it to some of Scott’s novels with his myth and ritual in our borders. Anthropology is a possibility but it is more about herself. Maybe, we could just leave it as the journey of a poetic journalist making friends in an area which is part of her.

To conclude, all found it an engaging and enjoyable book of its time but unlikely to become a “classic”


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…..

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.


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!