Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Perlman, Elliot: Seven Types of Ambiguity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austen, Jane: Persuasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kay, Adam Richard: This is Going to Hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Braithwaite, Kate: The Road to Newgate

The Proposer is a fan of Historical Novels and had previously offered “Rob Roy” by Scott and “The Reditsky March” by Roth .We have also covered “The Red Badge of Courage”, “The Leopard”, “An Officer and a Spy” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Arguably, Scott is the father of the Historical Novel and his influence is extensive .At best it gives the reader a taste for history and what comes through is convincing atmosphere, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions. However, purely as a novel it must satisfy as well. The Proposer knows the author and this adds interest for him and those who know her family, but it is also a good novel, accurate and where there are adjustments to dates to add to the drama, she is honest in declaring what she has changed. Original material has been used extensively and this adds to the shock of, for example, the performances of the two judges, Contemporary Trump and Brexit hysteria can be looked at through the experience of Titus Oates and his supporters and their success in largely conquering London. There is also the willingness of people in Britain to see great evil in Catholicism .

The Group enjoyed the book. We looked at one quote which displays fine tempo and use of language; “This is only a straw man, thank God .But I cannot drag my eyes from it all the same .He-it-wears tight black breeches and a many buttoned waistcoat. It sports a grubby neckerchief and a long dingy coat that has seen better days. They have given it woollen stockings -warn grubby and patched. Worst of all the wig and hat. Its wig hangs limply and is matted with some tacky grime .The hat looks as it has been kicked across the cobbles before being crammed upon its head. Probably because it has.”

The horror for Anne is palpable. However use of language was inconsistent and casual references in setting a scene were sometimes trite .The story is of the Popish Plot .There is no sub theme. In Barnaby Rudge , Dickens deals with the Gordon Riots a century later. There are lots of other layers .But this is not Dickens and it is less than half the length . The scenes were well constructed, in particular the visit to Mathew Medbourne in Newgate. Did the four voices work as a perspective on each chapter ? Husband and wife, fine, but could a different character not have given the drama greater perspective, e.g. the sister or one of the Oates team ?

In a Historical Novel ,should the main character be real or fictional ? It was suggested that the main character should be the creation of the Author. But who is the main character? Oates is arguably the object and Nat is the subject .

Lee, Laurie: As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning


The proposer noted that the three books for which Laurie Lee (1914-1997) is remembered are autobiographical.  “Cider with Rosie” (1959) covers his life up to 16. His father abandoned the family and left his second wife to bring up a large group of kids. They lived outside Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Then he spent 4 years as a junior clerk in Stroud. Next “as I walked out one midsummer morning” he travelled to London and then across Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was published in 1969, ten years after “Cider with Rosie”. Finally, “A Moment of War” (1991) covers his return to Spain to fight in the Civil War.

He also published books of poetry, one of essays and records of some of his foreign visits. In this we see him going to Ibiza to write “As I Walked Out.” He was largely unimpressed by the tourists, but enjoyed the booze, the grub and the talent.

After the Civil War he married. His wife also died in 1997. He was a poet, writer, lecturer, and journalist, and was awarded the MBE. He died in his home county. Life was made easier for him because “Cider with Rosie” sold 6 million copies.

He kept a notebook on his travels, not with a view to writing books, he said, but rather to be able in the future to relive the events.

Why did the proposer choose the book? He was very fond of Spain, and 1934-6 was a dramatic time for a writer to be there. He had also enjoyed books about Spain by V.S. Pritchett and Gerald Brenan. But Lee’s poverty, honesty, compassion and charm drew him back to the book and its beautiful evocation of his Spain.

Finally, he noted that Almunecar has changed and is now like Marbella Old Town. And he wondered if Lee had a map? He hoped so, but he chose some areas with no roads and it must have been difficult to avoid getting lost!

This book was well received by the Group. “It was a delightful read, beautifully written …his language is poetic and lyrical” said one absent member. A surprising number of the group knew Spain well, through the decades, and had undertaken various walks there. One had walked through the Pyrenees into Spain, and one had been reading the book while olive picking near Malaga. Another who had driven across Spain now wished he had walked it!

The book was published some thirty five years after the events described. The book falls into 3 sections. The first describes his decision to leave his country village and set off on a great walk, with destination unknown. He carries a violin, and becomes skilled in busking for money. “It’s really a description of two journeys, one through part of England and the other through Spain. I love his description of life in England in the early 1930’s and the fascinating characters he meets on his journey. It amazed me how many others were wandering around the UK about the same time. On reaching London he manages to earn some money pushing a wheelbarrow for a year. The reason he gives for going to Spain is because he knew the Spanish for “Will you please give me a glass of water?” and  is almost laughable”. As well as meeting other tramps and the great army of unemployed searching for work on the way, he has a brief relationship with a rich girl, which is brought to an abrupt end by her father, and he finds work on a building site.

Then he sets off for Spain, saying he knows nothing about the country and does not speak the language. The central and most powerful section of the book describes with great power his journey south through the searing heat and immense poverty of Spain, how he adapts to their way of life, and picks up the language. “Having made a similar but swifter journey by car from south to north a few years ago, I was able to picture the vastness of the country, its unforgiving climate and the many delightful places he visits. I had forgotten how desperately poverty-stricken and wretched a lot of country folk were at that time in Spain”.

Everyone really liked the power and precision of his descriptive writing:

The thick silent dust, lifted by the shudders of heat rather than by the presence of any wind, crept into my sandals and between my toes, stuck like rime to my lips and eyelashes, and dropped into the breathless cups of the roadside poppies to fill them with a cool white mirage of snow.

His face was as dark and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lips like an adder.”

Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of the harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the fields like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light – blue shirts and trousers, and with broad gold hats tied with green and scarlet cloths.”

At Toledo he comes more into contact with expats, and there is a change of tone as he travels to the south coast, and gets to know Republicans worried about an impending challenge to their new Socialist government. Then the book ends with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his short-lived return to Britain. He soon leaves for Spain again with the ambition of playing his part in the Civil War.

Also very striking were his descriptions of how easily war breaks out, and how quickly violence can escalate:

That special adrenalin in the young which makes war easy, and welcomes it, drew me voluptuously to Altofaro”.

It was not victory, however,…. when the militia returned, round about midnight, there was no singing or cheering welcome. The wounded, the shocked, the dying and the dead were unloaded in bitter silence…El Gato walked speechlessly away trailing his rifle like a broken limb.”

There were many aspects of the book which attracted discussion. One was the issue of how honest he had been in what he wrote. Some felt there was an element of selective memory, and perhaps distortion, in his account? For example, he presents himself as a rural peasant who knows nothing when he sets out. Yet he has a rich girlfriend in London, can play the violin, goes in for poetry competitions, and seems able to mingle easily with the eccentric poet Roy Campbell and his partner.

It seemed amazing that he could recall so much of the detail of his journey. He often says “I remember…” but does not own up to having kept a notebook, as we now know he did. Just for the purpose of reliving the experiences, he said, but it is commonplace for writers to undertake great walks largely for the purpose of writing a book at the end. Or is he simply grafting later memories of Spain on to the walk he conducted as a twenty year old?

He falls into a long tradition of British writers describing walks in Spain – such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Morton (Beachcomber), George Borrow – and there are a group of French writers who have done the same. And they all seem to find the same Spain. So was his choice of Spain less random than he claims?

Much of the book contains talk of sexual experiences of various kinds, some briefly described, more hinted at. But we now know from biographical information that he met his “muse” while he was in Spain, and that she supported him financially, yet the book does not refer to her and suggests that busking was his main source of income.

And the fact that the British Embassy was aware of his presence and rescued him from the Civil War, along with other British nationals, again made us wonder if were quite the peasant tramp that he presents.

Even his amusing story of climbing into a girl’s bedroom by ladder in London had the cynics amongst us wondering if it had really happened or whether he had been reading “Le Rouge et le Noir”.

But in the end we concluded that it did not matter if he were selective or inclined to embroider – wouldn’t most do that in an autobiography?  It only mattered if while reading the book you found yourself doubting his veracity. One of or two of us had had that feeling, but all had enjoyed the book, even if, in the words of his biographer, Lee was “mythologising’ his youth.

His use of language was another area of discussion. It was argued that his great strength lay in his ability to describe in very visual and striking terms (“the road ran like a meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple…”). This flowed largely from his stunning use of imagery – of similes and metaphors – which were always fresh and arresting. It was no surprise to find that poetry was his first love.

He did on occasion go for a description that also used the sound of language, its rhythm and cadence, – e.g “submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish” to convey meaning. But most of the time his sentences concentrated brilliantly on poetic imagery rather than poetic rhythm. This differentiates him from many other writers of “poetic prose”. And the rhythmic inertia of his little poem that he quotes may illustrate why his poetry was less successful than his poetic prose.

And his approach was by no means a bad thing in this book. It gave the language a muscular feel that suited the descriptions of the exhausting walk, the wild interior and the grinding poverty.

Another factor, illustrated in some of the examples above, was that he was inclined to write sentences in an unexpected order of words, which similarly increased the arresting effect of what he was saying, while slowing down the flow of the words and the drive of the narrative.

What then of his politics? Although he was very compassionate towards the Spanish rural poor, to the extent of returning with the aim of fighting in the Civil War, he did not reveal any party political leanings. “Unlike so many of my age, for whom Spain represented one of the last theatres of political romanticism, I hadn’t consciously chosen it as a Cause but had stumbled on it by accident, simply by happening to be there.

Some felt, however, that he might have exaggerated the poverty he encountered, while others said they had seen similar things. At any rate, we strongly suspected his focus was on describing and empathising with the poor. Any one better off is dismissed with scorn. This reminded us of J. B. Priestley’s lop-sided description of poverty in his “English Journey”.

And one of our travellers noted that when travelling, whatever your background, you tended to be approached by people of all social classes who were equally friendly. It was hard to imagine this had not also happened to Lee. And even at the outset of the book he was at pains to establish his working class credentials with his work on a building site. But such attitudes are hardly unusual at the age of 20, as was the way in which he fell in love with all things Spanish while rubbishing all things British.

An interesting question was the relationship between the young person portrayed and the older person writing the book. The older persona does not appear much, other than in “I remember” mode, but occasionally there is a characteristically terse aside fro the older Lee- e.g. “I’d developed an ingrowing taste for the vanity of solitude.” Such remarks disarmingly acknowledge the naivety of the young man.

Being written in the mode of a journey, one might see the shape of the book as the naïve and immature young man at the beginning has through his experiences come of age in both his outlook to life and his sexuality. Nevertheless, some felt he still had a lot of maturing to do, and one who had read the third volume did not see much sign of that happening in that book either.

Perhaps the truth was that he remained throughout his life an Epicurean, for whom wine, women and song were his joys, and who was fairly lazy when it came to writing, having only produced the three books of real substance.

The proposer drew our attention to an interview on an arts programme when Lee volunteered that Paradise would involve unlimited capacity for food, drink etc, with friends always accessible when required. He thought his writing was voluptuous and secret as he never allowed others into his office. He claimed he had a tape of typing and switched the recorder on when reading Playboy or admiring the view from the window! He came over as charming.  

We debated, but did not resolve, why this book had been less successful than “Cider with Rosie”, as this book seemed better. Not as fashionable a subject as a nostalgic idyll in the English countryside? Too big a gap between the books? Spain of less interest than France or Italy? Too many other books in the same vein? Too long and vague a title?

We also noted that the books were fairly short, around 200 pages. Some of us would have wanted them longer, giving more detail of the travel in the way of Eric Newby. Perhaps this reflected his laziness, and the minimum target given him by the publisher. More charitably, his writing was very succinct. If you viewed much of the book as a kind of prose poem, 200 pages was long enough.

What about the title? The first line of a folk song. Was there perhaps also an echo of  Piers Plowman’s famous medieval walk:

“In a somer seson, when softe was the sonne…

[I] wente wide in this world wondres to here”

We concluded it was a fascinating book and a very enjoyable discussion.

But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……