Banks, Iain: The Bridge

bridge2Iain Banks considered this to be his best novel. He said ‘Definitely the intellectual of the family, it’s the one that went away to University and got a first’. But it is not the easiest one to read. It mostly deals with the thoughts and dreams of Alex, victim of a car crash who is comatose for most of the book. The crash itself is described in the first two pages. One of our members skipped this bit, thinking it was the preface. Dear reader, don’t make the same mistake. But whether one misses this or not, it takes a while – perhaps 70 pages – before the penny drops and structure and plot dawn on the reader.

The bridge is a fictionalized and exaggerated version of the Forth Rail Bridge, the huge cantilever construction in red-painted steel, built in 1890, connecting Edinburgh with Fife. The bridge in the novel is much bigger, vast and multilayered, very wide, apparently a world to itself with its own totalitarian government. The bridge is a powerful metaphor for society or possibly for the author’s psyche. Where does the bridge start and end? No-one knows; perhaps it doesn’t end on dry land at all.  Later, when the protagonist travels for days along it, he passes through different climatic zones, so we may conclude that the bridge is at least hundreds of km long.

In real life the protagonist is a young business man from Glasgow called Alex. He likes drink, drugs and fast cars. When still a young student in Edinburgh he falls in love with one Andrea Cramond, an advocate’s daughter. But she goes to live in France and enters into another relationship. He hits the drink and crashes his souped-up Jaguar. When in a coma he lives on the bridge as the amnesiac John Orr, periodically meeting his psychiatrist Dr Joyce. Sometimes another character called The Barbarian pops up; one who rants and raves in broad Scots dialect, often incoherently – something like a Scottish Caliban. The key to understanding the book is that Alex, John Orr and The Barbarian are one and the same, each representing a different facet of one man’s psyche. To make matters more complicated, the Barbarian has an enigmatic being on his shoulder called ‘The Familiar’. Not, we thought, the famous chip on the shoulder that Scots are supposed to have, but a representation of, well, what exactly? There was no consensus. One of us thought it was a phallus, but perhaps it was a mentor, a guardian angel, a parrot, or the id. Or even a representation of a controlling force, someone suggested the government in Westminster.

John’s adventures on the bridge are bizarre. At first, he lives a comfortable life in which he is provided for. He undergoes treatment for his amnesia by a psychiatrist and dream analyst called Dr Joyce, and to please the good doctor he invents dreams. Opinions were divided about whether there was supposed to be a real life Dr Joyce who was treating him during intermissions from the coma, or whether it is all a dream during the coma (we digressed: can comatose people dream? Can comatose people make up dreams during dreams? Can comatose people be considered amnesiac, since there are completely unconscious?). The invented dreams are so vividly recalled and detailed that Joyce suspects they are made up and tells John that he wants to change the treatment to hypnotherapy. When John refuses he is banished to a lower level of the bridge, where privileges and personal clothing are perfunctorily withdrawn. However, the beautiful Abberlaine Arrol rescues him; she is none other than the bridge’s version of his real life lover Andrea; she provides clothes and an apartment; they make love. During the act of love he fantasizes about girders, women’s underwear and other engineering structures and concludes ‘I feel like I have just fucked the bridge’.  Subtle.

Life on the bridge has strange twists and turns. One day, the bridge is buzzed by aircraft that strangely leave messages in the sky, in braille (should it be Morse code?); and a few days later barrage balloons appear, apparently to protect the bridge against further attack. Like many parts of the book, this appears to have no particular relevance to the plot, unless to give weight to the idea that governments frequently exaggerate external threats for political reasons.  In fact, the real-life Forth Bridge was similarly attacked at the start of World War II; something Banks would have known about because his father was a naval officer and worked at the Rosyth naval dockyard, the real target of the WWII bombers.

He stows away on a train, which travels far along the bridge to a war zone. Plenty of blood and gore occurs, but there are humorous passages too. The author’s imagination runs wildest in this area.

Finally, he comes out of his coma, and I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens. Perhaps the ending is a bit trite. One member found this last page had been torn from his second hand bookshop copy. Perhaps its owner thought the ending not worthy of the book.

What did we think of it all? It is a work of vivid imagination and rich description, plumbing the psychological depths of alienation. It was his third book (published in 1986). Later, he was to move into science fiction, and we see the start of that sci-fi interest here (he clearly had much fun writing about the invented dreams, the balloons, the flying knife, the war). The real life scenes, based in Edinburgh and Fife may be by contrast rather flat; his imagination comes into play when he deals with adventures on the bridge. The book is said by most reviewers to be a love story, but its power is not really in romantic matters (although the two sex scenes are some of the most interesting you’ll ever read). The love story takes second place to the adventures on the bridge; but the dreams are riveting; the characters in the consulting room are reminiscent of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, the 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The situation that John Orr encounters on the bridge reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. The psychological parts are both Freudian and Jungian, and at one point the author makes reference to RD Laing, author of works on the existential analysis of personal alienation, and the classic 1960 book on schizophrenia The Divided Self.

The division of the book into geological sections plus metaphormosis, metamorpheus and metamorphosis is not very helpful, possibly pretentious. What are we to make of them? Alex begins as a student of geology – the geological periods used as section headings are Triassic (250 to 200 million years ago) and Eocene (56 to 34 million years ago). Possibly something can be read into this. The Triassic was a time of transition after a particularly nasty mass extinction. The Eocene saw the dawn of a new fauna with modern mammals and the rise of grasses; but really, what’s the point? Of course, Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, so therefore a bit more relevant.

Is the work to any extent autobiographical? His father was a naval military man and his mother was a professional ice skater. What impressions did they make on him?  His early life was spent in North Queensferry, in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge. Viewed from close quarters, we all agree that the bridge seems massive, oppressive, and the giant girders are unforgettable; even from a distance the raw engineering structure is awesome, iconic, likely to leave a deep impression on practically any young lad. The author was a young man when Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, otherwise known as Faslane, became home of the Trident nuclear submarines (the Peace Camp was established in 1982): this may have helped to form his left-leaning politics, and sparked an interest in the alienated state of mind and the defence of the state, both themes in the book. After writing the book his life seems to mirror that of the fictional Alex. He collected fast cars, he had a car crash, he had an interrupted personal life. His characters like to rant about the politics of the day just as he did for much of his life (he was an active supporter of Scottish Independence, hater of everything to do with Margaret Thatcher and he campaigned with others to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq). I’m sure these things will interest his biographers (he died of cancer in 2013).

His place as a major literary figure in the English speaking world is assured. Perhaps he will be best remembered for his first novel, Wasp Factory or for his science fiction. But The Bridge will challenge, amuse, and intrigue readers for years to come.


Boo, Katherine: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The book was “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo (2012). The proposer had recently become a trustee of a charity operating in India. This book had been recommended as a good introduction to the realities of Indian life.

 Katherine Boo, who had recently appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, was a distinguished American journalist. She had worked for the Washington Post from 1993 to 2003, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by exposing neglect and abuse in homes for the mentally retarded, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She had joined the staff of the New Yorker in 2003, winning the National Magazine Award in 2004. One of her themes was the contrast between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in American cities.

 Following her marriage to an Indian husband, she had turned her attention to India, and specifically to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai next to the airport. She tracked the fortunes of a number of the slum residents for a period of over three years. Although her ability to interact directly with most of the slum residents was limited by language, she was very tenacious, and had gone to great efforts to get things right by employing Indian translators and assistants. She had used freedom of information to obtain access to over 3,000 public records. Her book had won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category.

 The book was described as “narrative non-fiction”, but it read like a novel. The proposer found it fast-paced, witty, grisly, and compelling.  He had found it impossible to put down. It was a revelation as it illuminated the scale of poverty, of bureaucratic nightmare, and multi-layered corruption. Extreme poverty is obvious in India, but this showed how people are kept in that state and willing to accept their lot. Yet Boo’s journalistic style, and her ability to conjure up situations perfectly with one well-chosen phrase, made it a quick read.

 Everyone found the book extremely readable, even including one who dreaded what calamity was next when picking it up again. Boo was undeniably effective in delivering a crisp and striking narrative, although some found the “journalistic” prose style a little irritating. But even these readers admitted she had a fine turn of witty phrase. She started with gentle irony, for example:

 “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late

  “Now the hut… had a high-status, if non-functioning, refrigerator.

 This became a more mordant wit as the book progressed:

 “That job had been to clean public toilets and falsify the time sheets of his benefactor and other sanitation workers…

 “Then a doctor entered with the results…Abdul was seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not.

 But humour and wit were not qualities often associated with this type of book. Nor was her welcome lack of sentimentality. Only in her insistence that children told the truth, while adults lied, did she perhaps lapse into romanticizing.

 The format of the book – “narrative non-fiction” – was unusual. Most of us had assumed it was a novel, based on research. It therefore came as a considerable surprise to read in the afterword that it was based on real people whose names had not been changed. This required some substantial revision of the reader’s perspective.

 This shock at the end certainly gave the book and its issues more impact. But it also raised concern. Why had the writer not used the usual convention of saying that the people were real but the names changed? There might be a good reason for this, but we were not clear what it was. Was it that the web of corruption was so extensive that one or two examples of graft amongst slum-dwellers would not be pursued? That nobody in the slum would read the book – but could you be sure? We worried that heavy-handed retribution might fall on the heads of some of the people whose lives had been dissected.

 And what about the feelings of individuals? How might Axa feel about her alleged scams being revealed by someone she had trusted? Or her sex life being broadcast world-wide? Or to work out that much of the information might have come from her English-speaking daughter? We could not answer these questions without knowing the author’s defence, but we did hope that the author had not become another who exploited the slum-dwellers for their own ends.

 Most of our discussion, however, focussed on the issues raised by the book, and we benefited from having some extensive knowledge of India within our group. Extreme poverty and hunger were poignantly revealed as the slum-dwellers fought to gather bits and pieces of everyday waste to sell to the recyclers for a rupee or two to keep them fed for another day. And the ghastly environment of the shanty-town with its lake of sewage – but cheek by jowl with the airport and its glittering luxury hotels – was unflinchingly recorded. However, powerful as this was, most of us were well aware, from visits, television or reading, that there was still appalling poverty in India on a giant scale.

 What came as a more of a shock for most of us was the extraordinary scale of corruption permeating all levels of society. This was most brutally exposed in the saga of Abdul and his incarceration and torture for a crime he did not commit, with the constant refrain of someone offering to solve the problem if only his impoverished parents could offer them a big enough bribe. Every fine-sounding Indian government initiative to help the poor was subverted by local politicians for their own financial gain. The anti-poverty business was a good one to be in because of the sums of money that could be creamed off. In one of her many bons mots, Boo yokes “politics and corruption” together as one of three possible routes out of poverty (and the one most likely to work).

 Occasionally the representatives of western governments and charities flit across the background, depicted as universally naïve and easily gulled into hearing what they want to hear. And, ludicrously, a western-inspired animal rights organisation intervenes in the slum to insist on the prosecution of an owner of horses. But the horses are better fed than the slum-dwellers, who consider the horses the most lovingly tended creatures in the slum. Meanwhile India had said it was now a rich country and did not need any aid from the West.

 Equally shocking was the despair. The level of suicide – from self-immolation, rat poison or hanging – was harrowing. She quotes an “ode to low expectations”, a particularly sad Marathi song: “What you don’t want is always going to be with you/What you want is never going to be with you…”

 She notes that “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.

 And in a particularly hard-hitting and radical conclusion she talks about the lack of mutual support and the narrowing of moral imagination in the slum. “Hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional…. The poor took one another down, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.

 However………did we accept that her bleak and angry portrayal of slum-life was accurate, and her hard-hitting conclusions fair? Here we were in difficulty in making a judgement. Based on the facts she presented, her conclusions seemed solid to most of us. But we were in the author’s hands in terms of what she chose to show us of the slum-world. Certainly a recently created and large urban slum, with the population constantly changing, and with different religions and different backgrounds, might be less mutually supporting than a rural village or even a South African township. And extreme poverty might challenge most people’s feeling for their fellow human-beings.

 But some wondered if Boo had in certain areas overstated her case. Were the slum-dwellers quite as mutually unsupportive as she concluded? Even on the evidence of the book there was not a lot of inter-slum theft or violence. Most of the witnesses in the Fatima case told the truth. And, as she herself acknowledged, there was less religious discrimination within the slum than might have been expected.

 And the economy of the slum did function at a certain level, and did support the wider economy of Mumbai. The alternative of giving up and returning to the poverty of the countryside seemed, for most residents, to be even less attractive.

 And there was some evidence of Indian government initiatives making progress. For example, the initiative to give the Dahlits priority in university entrance must have had some success to judge from the protests made by other caste groups.

 And was the legal system quite as bad as Boo implied? “The Indian criminal system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” But the fast track system, which she ridiculed mercilessly, had at least reached the right verdict. And many of the faults she depicted – the length of time to reach a verdict, the lack of understanding of what is said in dialect, maltreatment of suspects by the police – could be found in older legal systems much closer to home. And although various intermediaries in search of bribes asserted that lawyers or judges might be bribed, she presented no evidence of any such corruption.

 So what hope for the future? One of us with much background in India had put to an Indian think-tank expert the view that corruption was India’s number one problem. The expert agreed, but, depressingly, said he could envisage no circumstances in which it might be tackled. One of the problems was that governments were generally coalitions between a major party (of which there were two), and smaller parties with only a regional or sectional rather than a national agenda. It was common to denounce corruption, but that was the corruption of your political opponents rather than systemic corruption in India.

 But was our concern – and Boo’s concern – about corruption just another example of people in the west ignorantly trying to impose our value judgments on a foreign country? Well, that was always a danger, but we remembered the analysis in the “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford  (discussed 30/1/08) of how a country like Cameroon failed in economic growth compared to China.  It was not because of lack of entrepreneurial spirit, but because of corruption.

 Perhaps we could only console ourselves by taking the longer view. It had taken Britain a couple of centuries to come to terms with the growth of urban slums associated with our agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was 1942 before the Beveridge Report proposed the developed welfare state along the lines we now know. As for corruption, it was 1853 before the Northcote Trevelyan report recommended that merit rather than “patronage, preferment or purchase” should be the basis for recruitment and promotion in the Civil Service.  We still had plenty of sink estates where life could be very unpleasant. In many respects India was now undergoing its own agrarian and industrial revolutions, and it would be naïve to expect them to be able solve the consequent problems overnight.


Brown, George Mackay: Beside the Ocean of Time

This book wins my award for the most alluring title of all our books so far. Yes, time is a kind of ocean in which we all drown, metaphorically speaking. Of course, George Mackay Brown is an author who uses metaphors and symbols beautifully, as befits a poet. To quote from one of his poems:

 In the fire of images

Gladly I put my hand.

 The proposer of this book was very familiar with the author’s work through the poems, short stories and novels.  Only one other member of our group had read the book before. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) spent most of his years on Orkney, in Stromness, suffering poverty in his early life and then illness (tuberculosis, bronchial problems, depression and finally bowel cancer). His poor health barred him from the army at the start of World War II. He worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald.  He was a student in Edinburgh, frequenting the bars of Rose Street and meeting other writers. There he formed a relationship with a woman, Stella Cartwright, described as “The Muse in Rose Street”.  However, he never married.

He was a troubled soul, as judged from his work, his life and the available photographs. He turned to alcohol but he was never an alcoholic. His fondness of beer is nicely expressed: drink, he said ‘flushed my veins with happiness…washed away all cares and shyness and worries’. Most of us can relate to that. His work was widely recognised in Scotland, and he was awarded the OBE in 1976. Beside the Ocean of Time was the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Booker Prize.

 The writing, in one sense (the best sense) is naïve: he seldom uses big words or elaborate sentences, and the plots are never complex. In this book the chapters are for the most part short stories relating the dreams of a child. However, the child becomes a man and a poet; the chapters finally connect to make a coherent tale of a man’s life. Many elements are clearly autobiographical.

 The child is Thorfinn Ragnarson. He lives on an imagined island in Orkney called Norbay. The first sentence is ‘Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson’. He’s a sleepy fellow, and a dreamer.  Most chapters begin with a mundane scene of island life; pretty soon the boy falls asleep and dreams of a historical event in which he is a character. In the first story we are sailing down the Volga to confront the Cossack army, in the second we are at Bannockburn. The boy always wakes and the chapter ends as the real world is brought back. The stories are strung together to make an Orcadian chronology. It’s a simple and effective format, and the book is in a style like no other we could think of although we made comparisons with Under Milk Wood, Silver Darlings, Sunset Song.

 Parts of the book have a magical quality, like the scene of the seal-people dancing, and the beautiful seal-girl crouching at the shore; she has lost her seal skin, having left it on the rock with seven limpets. What can this be all about? He takes her home, he marries her, she’s strangely addicted to sea food; they have children with scaly hands, then she leaves. Then he wakes up. It was another one of those dreams. She was a selkie, the mythical creature in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish folklore.

 The wheel of time moves slowly in Norbay, not much happens. Mostly we read of island folk living close to nature and going about their daily lives. But there are intrusions, some in dreams like the Viking Invaders and the Press-Gang; and some real, relating to social change in the years leading to the Second World War.  There is the intrusion of alcohol (the social cleavage between the ‘inn-folk’ and the ‘kirk-folk’); various outsiders come, most notably the lovely young woman who arrives unannounced and stays with the new Minister in the manse, causing the islanders to gossip: should they report the matter as misconduct to the General Assembly? She rides a horse along the tops of the cliffs, wildly. Then, one day the mysterious girl departs, saying to the young Thorfinn ‘You, poet, wait for me. I’ll come back some day. Never forget’. Three strange men, also unannounced, arrive in 1937 and proceed to set up their tripod and instruments in the wheat fields to survey the land. They are attacked by a local woman and their equipment is kicked over. Intrusions are to be resisted.

 Towards the end of the book we are transported to more modern times and the pace quickens: now, Thorfinn is a young man and we are on the brink of World War II. The mood is dark. The island is being requisitioned as a military base, in fact an aerodrome to provide protection for the naval base (a naval base really existed on Hoy from 1945 to 1957 and there were indeed aerodromes). Well, that explains the three men who were conducting the survey. The island has never known such a thing, as people, supplies and materials are brought in. It’s the climax, the final intrusion; we witness the destruction of a primitive island society by massive modern technology.  He cannot stand this cataclysm and he leaves as bulldozers and machinery concrete over the fields to make a mile-long airstrip.  In the final chapter, years later, we return to the island and everything is different; there are unexpected twists and turns that bring closure to the plot. I won’t tell you what happens.

 It was an easy read, light relief after Salman Rushdie! We all enjoyed this book. There is a strong sense of place. We see the shaping of the man by the place and people, and the historical dream-stories remind us that it has always been that way. The final destruction of the land, as the hand of man replaces productive fields with impervious concrete is the ecological metaphor for our time. Amen.

 Having no serious disagreement on the quality and meaning of the book, we finished our discussion rather early. Our host tempted us with oat cakes and there was talk of Orkney Whiskey. The conversation turned to ‘what’s wrong with Scottish rugby’ to which the reply was ‘the same as what’s wrong with Scottish football’. We stepped out into the cold night of Morningside, under a full moon and a sharp frost, and made our way home.

Bronte, Emily: Wuthering Heights

Out on the wiley, windy moors,

We’d roll and fall in green

You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me?
When I needed to possess you…..

 As we arrived at the venue for the discussion, the lock drew back and the door creaked open. “Enter”, exclaimed our host, warmly. “Thank you”, we replied, nervously. “Would you like a drink”, he continued, perspicaciously. “We have brought some ale”, interjected a colleague, thirstily. “Come in and sit down”, he exclaimed, tartly. “I have no more adverbs. Ms Brontë may help us as she has plenty to spare, but I can certainly find a bottle opener”. And so we assembled in the living room, some of us with our backs to an exposed, un-shuttered window that seemed to invite a ghostly presence. We fingered our fiction, feverishly. We began.

 This is clearly one of the most influential novels in the English Language, and not just on the 1978 Kate Bush song and performance recorded on film. This is a book selected by the Guardian in 2003 as the 17th greatest novel of all time, one ahead of Jane Eyre, no less, although one has to suspect the compilers have only read English language classics. Is the novel influential because of its inherent quality, its unusual claustrophobic setting and quasi-Gothic atmosphere, the associated tragedies of the Brontë family, or more recently, the many filmed treatments? Is the Monthly Book Group qualified to offer an opinion? The answer to this last question is almost certainly “No”, especially when viewed against the many literary theses from the many English Literature departments in the many Universities, but herein is recorded an inaccurate record of the discussion.

 Our host introduced the author and the book. The history of the gifted Brontës is well known, and is not repeated at length here. Emily was born on July 30th 1818 at Thornton, Bradford and survived the loss of her mother and two of her sisters to live a rather secluded existence in Haworth, after unhappy experiences at educational establishments in England and abroad. None of the literary Brontës lived to a ripe old age, possibly due to the insanitary water supply. One of us gave the startling information that the life expectancy in Haworth was then 25!

 Of early significance was the collaboration between Emily, Charlotte and Anne to write and publish a book of poems following early youthful efforts in an imaginary world, Gondal. The poems were published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, which prompted discussion about prejudice against women authors, as Mary Ann Evans slightly later used the pen name “George Eliot” to ensure her books were taken seriously. However, there were already many examples of  women publishing as women, such as Mrs Radcliffe. Jane Austen, who predated Emily Brontë, published her books anonymously “by a lady”. It was said that only three copies of the poems were sold, which is probably less than Pam Ayres, not included in the Guardian listing of the best poets to the best of our knowledge.. Our host informed us that a signed copy of the Bronte work still existed, and he recommended Emily’s poetry. From “A death scene”:

 He cannot leave thee now,

While fresh west winds are blowing,
And all around his youthful brow
Thy cheerful light is glowing!

 Familiar to those who have read the novel?

Anyway, it is thought that Emily started the novel in 1845; it was published in 1847. Emily died a year later at age 30. Subsequently, Mrs Gaskell wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, covering all the siblings.

One of the group suggested that the unique place of the novel owes so much the cloistered imagination dominating realism, as the extraordinary behaviour and circumstances of the participants tend to the supernatural. To a large extent this may have arisen out of their family circumstances. Certainly, ill health dominates the novel.

 The proposer continued that he had been inspired to read the novel initially at age 17, following a visit to Haworth, before the Yorkshire Tourist Board defined it as ‘Brontë country’. He suggested the development of Heathcliff as a psychopath, and showed how the complete action stemmed from the impulse of Mr Linton to bring Heathcliff into the family. There was some discussion about whether Heathcliff was really Linton’s child out of wedlock, of which more later. It was not clear whether such ambiguity was clever and deliberate, or whether it arose from reluctance by the author to be more explicit.

 Following this point, there was much discussion about the ambiguity of the several names of the intertwined families, and the difficulties in keeping track of Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs, as exemplified by the many surnames of Catherine on the ledge observed by Lockwood at the beginning of chapter 3. Certainly, this reader had to keep referring to the family tree.

 Then again, there was the apparently contradictory parentage of Hareton and Linton. Although Hareton is supposedly the son of Hindley and Frances, he is dark in complexion and with the behavioural traits of Heathcliff. So we may reasonably suppose that Heathcliff was his biological father, supported by the fact that Heathcliff caught baby Hareton when Hindley ‘accidentally’ dropped him. Isabella notes that he has “a look of Catherine [Earnshaw] in his eyes”. Again, Linton did not have any Heathcliff characteristics, being pale and lacking in energy, so perhaps Hindley was intended to be the biological father. There is a famous line in which Cathy realises she is destined to be at one with Heathcliff, in death if not in life. “I am Heathcliff”.

 So the questions arise. Was there an affair between Frances and Heathcliff to beget Hareton, and between Hindley and Isabella to produce Linton, based on the relative health and complexions? All sorts of other possible relationships were suggested. “Cousins were fair game” declared one of our group, with an air of experience.

 The conversation turned to Nelly Dean, the unreliable(?) narrator. The pub song came some 60 years later, but no connection has been established!  It was suggested that Nelly was the one stable and perceptive character in the book; although sometimes she did not appear to act rationally, for example when imprisoned she failed to alert the visiting servants. The unusual structure of the book was mentioned, as the story was related through Nelly to Lockwood to the reader. Did this further add to the mystery and uncertainty?

 To what extent is the heroines’ behaviour ruled by social convention? Catherine’s decision to marry Edgar rather than Heathcliff was noted. On the other hand, Isabella ran off with Heathcliff at age 19. Was this an illegal marriage? Our resident historians embarked on lengthy discussion, but I am unsure of the conclusion. Catherine and Heathcliff were never really engaged in a sexual relationship, we assume, and as noted above one could speculate that they may have been related. Initially Catherine misused Heathcliff as she was the supremely self confident and dominant partner. However, Heathcliff was changed by his time away and the relationship changed. Again, there is no certainty about his absence. When he returned, it did not seem to some of us that he was motivated by revenge at the outset. Yet, did he now think of Catherine as a possession? Ultimately, Cathy formed a relationship with Hareton to defeat Heathcliff, although a more likely explanation was debated; he just lost his energy and drive. He had achieved his goals in acquiring both properties, and destroying the families. He wanted to be reunited with Cathy in death. Touching again on the ambiguity, Heathcliff is portrayed as the romantic hero, a mirror image of Catherine herself. The debates between Cathy and Nelly about Heathcliff are very telling in that regard.

 It was time for dissenting voices. This is a novel about “stupid people doing stupid things”. For example, the section where Nellie fails to act when salvation is at hand from the searching servants defies belief. Lockwood was a complete “bampot”. Why did he go back on day 2? He had a shine on the younger Cathy. It was argued that the characterisation was also weak, the characters owing much to Hammer Film portrayals. This was caricature rather than character. Or is this too anachronistic? What about the preceding ‘Gothic novels’? To what extent did they influence this book? The one most people knew of was Shelley’s Franklenstein, written in 1818, A heated debate broke out; the room seemed to divide on geographical grounds with the proposer leading the debate to declare EB a very fine novelist as well as a poetess. There seemed to be general agreement on the evocative nature of the descriptions of the landscape, somewhat romanticised like the 19th century paintings that hang in the National Galleries, and so the perceived deficiencies were in characters, plot, and dialogue. Oh dear! At least she did not resort to ‘bampot’.

We returned again to the origins of Heathcliff. We talked of the common motif of the adopted child who behaves appallingly. Heathcliff was portrayed as an elemental force, of swarthy skin, a social and racial outcast, possibly a gypsy? In fact, Earnshaw brought back Heathcliff instead of a whip! Is he therefore a metaphorical whip? And so we turned to the Marxist analysis; Heathcliff as the oppressed; rises up against the state. A slightly modified version of ‘The Red Flag’ ensued; you probably know the words. What about some sign of solidarity with Joseph? What about his conversion to capitalism? Were the women no better than chattels?

 Hold on. Here, we have three proud, spirited women – the two Cathies and Isabella. From a feminist point of view, what? All literature reveals how women are exploited. So Emily writes about this.  The company was reeling from Marxism to feminism to alcoholism…

 We turned to the animals; is this an apologue? Dogs are a much reiterated image; there were many metaphors about dogs. Returning to the alleged weak characters and claustrophobic family circumstances, one suggested that Emily knows more about dogs than people. The spot, Penistone Crags, in the hills is perhaps a metaphor for sex, which is rather absent in an explicit sense. Yet, does it end well? Heathcliff puts his hair in Cathy’s locket; Nellie twists them together in the locket. There is Cathy at the window, and so Heathcliff and Cathy reunited at the last. The thoughts, like this account, were assuming a rather random pattern. So,

 Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy, come home

I’m so cold, let me in-a-your window

Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering,

Wuthering heights

Kate Bush and Emily Brontë have the same birthday. Maybe Kate is …….spooky or what?

Barnes, Julian: Nothing to be Frightened of

Edinburgh, August, Festival crowds going everywhere, trams going nowhere… but the hottest tickets in town were for the Monthly Book Group’s annual discussion by the seaside. And – yes! – your indefatigable correspondent is back from the dead for a guest re-appearance.

Some things had changed from my last visit 6 months ago. Most members looked rather older, though two were youthfully displaying Kindles.… And some things had not changed, as two compared their fine Pinot Noirs while disdaining a swallae of your correspondent’s cheapissimo red, “Selected by Tesco”….

The youthful proposer had found Barnes’ book in Oxfam (better not tell the author) and bought it as he had good memories of “Arthur and George”. He liked it very much, partly because he found he had so much in common with our Julian. This started with being brought up initially in Leicester, having as parents a dominant mother and quiet father, and going on to study French literature. Like Barnes he was concerned by not having proper knowledge of his parents’ lives, he feared flying, and was troubled by memory becoming more unreliable as time passed. There was even in his family a photo of a female relation with the face scratched out, similar to the mystery Barnes writes about (but in this case the solution was known: the lady disliked the photo and had scratched it out herself, which was unfortunate as no other photo of her survived). A veritable Julian Barnes doppelganger.

Therefore he could relate very easily to the book – but could others? It was difficult to define the genre of the book – it was not a novel, a history or even an essay. It was a rambling on the theme of mortality. Barnes knew it rambled, and admitted it. Barnes’ brother, the philosopher, was the logical thinker; Julian by contrast was not a sequential writer and moved from anecdote to anecdote, pulling in much that seemed irrelevant. There was a sort of sequence – looking at all the things that might prove a consolation to the fact of death. And he failed to find any that helped.

There was a large spread of opinion about the book. One member (who indeed had first introduced the Book Group to Barnes) did not attend, reporting that he found the book both difficult and boring, and had not finished it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was one who very much enjoyed it, and who also found he had a large amount in common with Barnes, especially through having a similar family background. (Another Julian Barnes doppelganger, indeed – a trippelganger, one might say?) He had been sufficiently enthused to start reading the book for a second time, make copious notes, and hunt down on the internet paintings eulogised by Barnes.

But the majority opinion was that of admiration – some grudging, some less so – for the cleverness of the book, mingled with substantial reservations about it. More specifically, there was admiration for the precision and concision of his language, in tandem with a chatty style. We liked the wealth of anecdotes and the breadth of ideas (from the latest scientific thinking about the nature of the brain, to quirky facts such as that your nails do not actually continue to grow after death). We liked the nimbleness of his mind, and the range of literary, artistic, and biographical reference. Some found the book funny (as in the anecdote of the man who hailed a passing hearse asking if it were free), while others found more irony, some of it rather bitter, than laugh-out-loud humour.

One major reservation for many was the length of the book, padded out with irrelevant anecdotes and repetition. “If a student gave me this,” one opined in professorial tones, “I’d tell him to cut the length by at least half ”. Related to this was the chapterless lack of structure and proper conclusion. “If you cut the book up and threw it on the floor, you couldn’t put it back in order. Nor indeed would it matter what order you read it in.” (At this point the speaker fessed up to having not bothered to read forty pages, but doubted if he had missed anything). “Barnes records” observed another, coldly putting the boot in, “that Oxford told him he did not have the right kind of mind to study philosophy. They were right. There’s enough that’s good in this to encourage me to read another Barnes’ novel, but not another rambling quasi-philosophical book like this. ”

“But”, chimed in the doppelgangers, “a sort of structure begins to emerge if you read it for the second time…”.

“And” suggested a doppelganger ally “if Barnes were here” (what did he mean? There were already two of them here) “he would say that one of his central points is that life does not follow the shapely narrative of a novel – it is random and rambling, and that’s why he is writing the book in the same way…” “???!!!” “Well, ok, maybe that is sophistry…

“So another reason is that he felt death is a big subject requiring a big book”… “yes, you often get the feeling he’s sitting at his desk wondering what on earth to write about today”… “but other writers have managed to sum up life and death in a sentence!”

Another reservation was that, in the process of resolutely knocking down every possible means of consoling himself about death, you felt that Barnes did not actually value anything in his godless world. He contrived to sound unenthusiastic about life in general, his interest in football (oh well, Leicester were doing badly then), about novel-writing, about relationships, about beauty, about the natural world, and even about his daily bottle of wine ( “sure you won’t try this cheapissimo red?” I asked a doppelganger. No, oh well…). Not for him the spiritual dimension that many still find in a godless world. It was not that we found the book depressing; it was that Barnes seemed depressed. And his endless, abstract cleverness served finally to muffle the real horror of death.

The oddest thing about the book, the most energetic, and the one that had attracted most public attention, was the autobiographical material included about his family. It had an emotional charge which suggested unresolved conflicts. You could admire the novelist’s skill he brought to the descriptions of his family, and to imagining what might be the story of his grandfather’s war. You could also admire his honesty in examining and recording his own feelings. But – really – did he have to write so bitterly about his mother? Did he need to unburden himself in this way? What was the relevance to a book about death? And why so much jocularly jealous material about his brother? It was surely significant that those of the Group most attracted to the book were those who could relate most easily to the autobiographical material.

And where was the novelist’s capacity for empathy when he thought about his family? He seemed to lack empathy at other points too – for example in the sneering account of the approach to death of the “A-type” American businessman…. Even the doppelgangers found him arrogant in referring to famous French writers as his “non-blood relations”. He excoriated his mother for a solipsistic view of the world, and then devoted reams to his own solipsistic worries about when readers would finally stop reading his books.

The discussion then moved from the book to the issues raised by it, though without provoking self-revelation on the Barnesian scale. All maintained they had no fear of death but perhaps did have of dying (but were they being honest?). First intimations of mortality (the “reveil mortel” of the book) were recorded. We noted the difference that having children made (Barnes did not have them) as fear of your death was replaced by fear that your children would pre-decease you. And perhaps the way in which people slowly lost their faculties and interests in their medically-supported old age, until their identity was the last thing they could let go of, offered a sort of consolation, a way of coming to terms with death.

So who had suffered from what Barnes records as the Stendhal Syndrome (breathlessness, overwhelmed by the power of art)? Several: overwhelmed by Verdi’s Requiem, by Michelangelo’s David, by the Iguazo Falls, ………and indeed, your indefatigable correspondent ventured, by Rooney’s overhead kick to defeat City …

(Why were they all glaring? Had the philosopher Shankly not observed that football was not a matter of life and death, but more important than that?)

The ever more youthful proposer (had he been reading Dorian Gray again?) had shifted from Oxfam to Kindle to source Barnes’ new novel “The Sense of an Ending”. He reported that, contrary to some reports, it was only loosely related to the current work – through exploring the theme that memory was identity. This was a strand of thought we had liked in the current book.

So now we had three Kindlers in the room. One had deployed the Kindle to particularly good effect in producing telling quotations at the key moment while others were struggling with folded-down corners of pages. “Ah, yes” said the Kindler “this is the ‘my clippings’ feature’.”

“So do they continue to grow after your death?”

Finally, the young proposer, in a first for this or surely any other Book Group, asked that his last words should be recorded now for posterity. This was just in case they were somehow missed on his deathbed. (Apparently the words are based on something a young lady had once said to him).

Reader, they are:


Bryson, Bill: African Diary

It really is, just a diary. Bill describes what happened to him over an eight-day visit to Kenya, sponsored by the charity CARE international. It isn’t an analysis, it isn’t especially thoughtful, it’s merely a diary written up with entertaining and generally cheerful comments. It’s only about 11 thousand words on 56 pages. Please don’t think we are shirkers this month; the proposer of the book has added this book to the month’s reading because he thought the main book was a bit short. It was light relief after Loung Ung’s First They Killed my Father. 

Despite being short, it provoked much discussion about the nature of Africa and Africans, and the nature of Aid.

Why do African cities have so much abject poverty, and why does Africa not develop economically like India and many of the SE Asian countries, especially when they are so blessed with natural resources? Bryson describes the slum of Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi. The rural poor come to the city to earn small money, but perhaps enough to afford education for their children. He tells of their poverty in a way that makes us smile rather than cry; for example the ‘flying toilet’. One shits in a plastic bag, and then hurls the bag as far away as possible. The stock answer to the question, of course, is that ‘greed and corruption’ takes the money away from where the need is greatest. We are told of a dirt road that is marked on the map as a highway to disguise the fact that the money that was suppose to pay for a proper road was siphoned off into someone’s pocket. 

All of us that have been to Africa can tell tales of corruption, but our own society has corruption too (the example given was ‘cash for Honours’ but there are many others such as MPs expenses). Our corruption might not be on the same scale, or perhaps we are better at hiding it. 

We reflected on what we think may have happened, or ‘gone wrong’, in the colonial era to make Africa what it is today. The imposition of European statehood on a tribal system was heavy-handed by today’s standards. To some extent the behaviour of today’s Africans must have been influenced by the way the colonial masters were perceived. In Britain the colonial era was the era of ‘fair play’, where British behaved decently towards each other, wasn’t it? Well no, not entirely. We had our own brand of abject poverty, we had child labour, sexual exploitation of women and so forth and so on. Well, let’s not go there. Keep Pandora’s box closed tonight.

Bryson tells stories of incidents and accidents with trains and planes, all of which serve to re-inforce our general view that the place is, above all, disorganised. I’ve been to several West African countries and that, for sure, is my abiding impression. Disorganised and sweaty. Yet, like me, he sees the positive side of things. One of these was his meeting with William Gumbo, a man who was shown how to be a small-scale market gardener, and he’s taken to it in spades. 

What about Aid? CARE’s philosophy, we are told, is to make a little go a long way, and to help people to help themselves. For example, make a bore hole and install a pump. It means people can grow crops in the dry season which transforms their lives. No-one would disagree, so why do the government of these resource-rich countries (in some cases oil rich) not take similar actions? Like most people, I find this question especially hard to answer; as one who has talked to academics and a few government people from Africa I can say that I find them erudite, thoughtful, and compassionate. Perhaps they are on average more excitable than most of us are, and certainly they are more inclined to laughter, and more inclined to believe in God.

India is a bit different. Ghandi’s influence perhaps. Who knows?

As with all of Bryson’s books, it’s well-written, engaging, and hard to put down. There are good photos of life in the slums and in a refugee camp, taken by Jenny Matthews. The revenue goes to CARE international, so we didn’t begrudge our £9.99 for this little book. 

This was Bryson’s first visit to Africa. I wonder if he will return.

Bowley, Graham: No Way Down – Life and Death on K2

Winter had arrived early on the highest slopes of Edinburgh as the host introduced “No Way Down” (2010). He had bought the book because attracted by the tag “An ‘Into Thin Air’ for the new century”, and felt it would provide a change for the Group by offering a new book on a new subject.

The author Graham Bowley was – as noted on the dust jacket – a journalist for the New York Times. More surprising was that he was a financial journalist. He continued to write financial/economic articles, together with a smattering of mountaineering pieces. As Bowley acknowledged in his preface, he had no prior interest in mountaineering before being drawn into writing first an article and then a book about K2. His subject was the 1 August 2008 tragedy where eleven of the world’s top climbers had died.

The Group had much enjoyed the book. Bowley told a gripping and dramatic story. The drama was enhanced by the use of dialogue and of a time sequence for the successive “scenes”. The reader was drawn on by wondering which of the climbers would live and which would die. The sense of impending tragedy was heightened by the symbolism of the yak’s throat being slit and his head stuck outside the tent, plus the superstitions of the porters, eager to propitiate the gods of the mountain and avoid bad luck.

Because Bowley did not have a mountaineering background, and had not been present at the events, the book did not reach the literary heights of some mountaineering classics. The group particularly favoured Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (about the 1996 Everest disaster), Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void” (cutting the rope in the Andes) and Heinreich Harrer’s “The White Spider” (about the north face of Eiger).

However, simply because Bowley did not have such a background, he was able to give a dispassionate account of the human failings of organisation and personality which had contributed to the tragedy, in a way that a passionate mountaineer could not. That made the book both unusual and valuable.

Bowley, however – unlike Krakauer – was not able to give great insight into what motivated people to climb. He makes some attempt at the end of his “Epilogue”:

“K2 was terrifically beautiful…yet…why had they come? Why had I come? For me their story possessed an archetypal force…basic and timeless…They had confronted their mortality, immediately and up close. Some had even come back to K2 after serious injury in earlier years attracted like flies to the light to some deeper meaning about themselves, human experience, and human achievement…Some had emerged from the ordeal; others had perished. All had burned brightly in their lives…”

 This passage tries hard but is conventional, vague and unconvincing. We suspected that Bowley’s real views were better recorded in his earlier statement:

The truth was that climbing attracted strong characters, egos, oddballs, and they rubbed up against one another

and in his summation “K2 had required from them heroism and selflessness and responsibility. It had also laid bare fatal flaws and staggering errors”.

So what did we think motivated such climbers? Some suggested that risk-taking was a normal aspect of human life –  even in crossing the road. High-risk mountaineering was simply at the far end of this scale, exciting and fuelled by testosterone. Males were normally the risk-takers, but that monopoly was going in today’s society.

Others felt that K2 mountaineering was in a category all by itself. The pleasures of normal hill-walking were obvious enough, at least to people living in Scotland. The adrenalin rush of extreme rock-climbing could also be comprehended, even if few of us were attracted to it. However, tackling K2 – an activity with a one in four mortality rate – was something quite different, more akin to Russian roulette.

Was it fuelled by a compulsion to find value in one’s life by being part of a tiny group of high achieving heroes? Only 277 people had successfully climbed K2 so far. So was it a craving for status, even if only in the climbing community? If so, it must have been quite a blow to arrive on K2 in 2008 and find over twenty other climbers trying to reach the top on the same day (or trying to “summit”, in the ugly neologism picked up by Bowley).

One of the attractions of the book was that Bowley rightly resisted the temptation to be judgemental in his writing, given the scope for adding to the grief of the bereaved. He was convincing in arguing that a kind of “groupthink” had taken over and allowed them collectively to make the error of pressing on to the summit too late in the day. Similarly he was not dogmatic in trying to resolve some of the riddles of exactly who had done what in the descent, noting that he had expected to establish a clear narrative but instead found himself “in some post-modern fractured tale”.

Occasionally, however, Bowley’s cloven hoof of judgement peeped out from under his toga of objectivity. The South Koreans did not get a very good press, suggested one reader, who suspected Bowley bought into the view that their large-scale nationalistic expedition was one of the root causes of the tragedy. Comparatively little effort had gone into recording the Koreans’ perspective or differentiating them as individuals, although that might reflect cost constraints. That Bowley did not think too much of the Dutchman Van Rooijen was also not very hard to work out, felt another. He thought it confirmed by the superbly deadpan comment that – Bowley having crossed the Atlantic to record the Dutchman’s viewpoint – Van Rooijen then sold rather than gave him a copy of his book.

By contrast, one member felt that Gerard McDonnell was eulogised to an extent that seemed implausible, which perhaps reflected American sentimentality about the Irish. And, felt another, it was perhaps surprising that Cecilie Skog attracted praise for being pretty but no comment for pressing single-mindedly on to the summit despite having been instrumental in precipitating the first death.

There were clearly difficult moral judgements that the climbers had to make about the extent to which they were willing to compromise their own safety – and their own chance of “summiting” –  by trying to help others. It was perhaps unsurprising that some, having got this far, were very ruthless, and remarkable that others were altruistic to the point of losing their own life. However, the fact that we felt equipped to venture judgments that the author did not was a tribute to the extent his story had brought the individuals alive (and to our presumption).

The mistakes made by some of the climbers in terms of not taking basic survival kit such as a GPS or sufficient oxygen bottles to accommodate a delay (there were porters to carry them) struck us as extraordinary. Given the odds of dying on K2, you would need to be a reckless risk-taker to undertake the climb, and perhaps that trait – that conviction of your own immortality – would inevitably be associated with a degree of carelessness and lack of realism about safety requirements.

It was a savage irony, noted one member, that effective co-operation between individuals and groups was at a premium in the situation they faced. Yet the type of ego-driven personality attracted to such a climb was liable to be the least adept at such co-operative activity. It was perhaps surprising that the groups had achieved even their initial degree of agreement.

In the book we discussed in May (Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis) the author observed that obtaining a long sought goal does not give more than temporary happiness. Soon it is on to the next goal, and making the journey gives more happiness than reaching the destination.

The truth of this was demonstrated in the compulsion that the K2 climbers felt to set out to risk their lives again, despite the horrors they had encountered on 1 August 2008. Thus Cecilie Skog was ice-climbing in the Rockies sixteen weeks after the death of her husband on K2. And Go Mi-sun, the star-climber in the South Korean team (and also female), died a year later on another mountain in northern Pakistan.

Sobering stuff, noted your correspondent. Meanwhile he observed a bottle of Ledaig malt from Tobermory being steadily drained by a fellow member, who claimed to be using it as a cold remedy.

 Hmmm….he must have been born on the same day as me…..