Crace, Jim: Quarantine and Coelho, Paulo: The Alchemist

Compare and contrast!

 The book group assembled on a misty, moisty evening in May, the last Thursday of the month. As we awaited possible new arrivals, one of our number recounted tales of his hedonistic youth as a possible antidote to the spiritual discussions to follow. We assumed the missing members were pursuing their own pleasures elsewhere. As we commenced our discussion, our group of five hardy souls placed great literature over the such pursuits, saving the odd glass of wine or bottle of beer, of course.

 Unusually, the proposer prefaced the discussion by showing two short videos made by the respective authors. Crace, born 1947, talked of his love or travel and how, aged 8 or 9, he invented islands and other settings named after his school teachers or famous writers. This line of development followed through to his books, many times set in new, imagined lands. Although owing much to the imagination, as a group we thought the milieu of Quarantine was fairly well defined by the biblical setting,

 Further reinforced by his lack of research, Crace acknowledged he tended to ‘wing it’ in his wonderful descriptions of life in the desert. In Quarantine, he creates a believable world out of a series of interesting characters, but not all is as it seems. For example, he acknowledges the medical quote at the start of Quarantine is fictitious. We loved his description of the weaving process and of the bees as a bait to catch the bird, but forewarned by the video we realized that we should not take these descriptions as ‘Gospel’.

 In contrast, Coelho, born in 1946, explained the process of writing a book. He touched on the necessity of experience in writing, citing Proust and Joyce as authors who worked more from imagination, but likening himself more to Hemingway, as requiring real knowledge of events. Coelho suggested he needed a constant challenge to avoid boredom, he associated this with travel and so he ‘hit the road’. Activity and energy are considered virtues in The Alchemist. A journey may have an unknown destination and so the traveler is open to adventure, thus avoiding boredom. As he travels, this author needs to share his experience, writing a book.

 Why did the proposer link these books? Both were very successful, and have some common themes. Each is set in a desert, has mystical quality, is allegorical, and raises big questions through small events. The language contrasts. Coelho uses a deceptively limited prose but Crace’s use of language is more stylised, complex, and poetical. Crace comes from an atheistic perspective, yet there are hints of the religious in his novel, or so we thought. Did we? Well, it may be that each reader takes from these books that which confirms his or her own beliefs; this was a recurring topic.

 There was some dispute about the theme of Christianity within Quarantine; perhaps the portrayal of Jesus as a poor, deluded and not very competent carpenter is intended to give the lie to Christianity, and of Musa as a most excellent villain of human origin to deny the Devil. Yet, the characters interpret everything as signs from God. How should Jesus appear? How should the Devil be pictured? Perhaps Crace does protest too much? Protest or not, the slight majority were in favour of the atheist perspective in Quarantine.

 Crace himself has argued “The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium. Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. Science does not triumph unambiguously in the book. Faith is not destroyed by Doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely.” So who stands at Crace’s shoulder, is it the “imp of storytelling” as he contends, or the “Grace of God”

 The proposer commented on the appropriateness of metaphors and similes to the period and setting in Quarantine –e.g. “she was possessed by hope, as madly and absurdly, as sweetly and as helplessly, as a melon taken over as a nest by bees.”, or “The pain ran up his veins like fire up oil-soaked thread”. The novel expressed the sheer physicality of Crace’s world, especially in the description of Jesus’s body falling apart – “his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid desert boys battling for a piece of wood”. Wow!

Coelho’s book is not specifically Christian, but deals with major issues of fate (“Makhtub”), of the dangers of fear and of loss, how the boy, Santiago, must give up his money and even personal relationships to travel on in search of his personal destiny. He writes of communion with nature throughout the book, but especially latterly as he converses with the Sun and becomes the Wind…”The Soul of the World surged within him”, He talks of universal truth, and of how each material has its place in the world, lead as well as gold. What of the alchemist, what of alchemy? Santiago, has many guides (or the same guide in many guises?), the old woman, the old man, the king, the alchemist, and this book has a decided spiritual theme. Perhaps more than any other novel it has caused its readers to question how they best spend their time on earth, if not beyond.

 Coelho suggests living in the present, not in the past, not in the future. “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and because they do, the world turns out to be, indeed, a threatening place”. Conversely, Santiago is advised that “the universe always conspires in your favour”. To fulfill your destiny, you have to be at one with the Soul of the World, and to cast aside fear, following omens and your dreams. What do you seek? Well “everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits them” … hmmm, not beyond the earth, then? Discuss, and we did.

And so is this Alchemy the ridding of base impurities to achieve a higher state of being, a destiny? What of the basic truth that can be found within base metal? What of the elixir of life; can this only be found through personal journey, leaving behind the sheep, the crystal glass and accumulated wealth that hinder our true path? To what extent is the journey metaphorical, to what extent literal? First, does travel lead to necessary new experience, (as Coelho craves) through place or human contact? Santiago’s father suggests that people come to his village “in search of new things, but when they leave, they are basically the same people they were when they arrived”. “They’re the same as the people who live here”. Who is Santiago’s father speaking for? Does the author express his own ideas through his character, or is not the character formed to express a contrary, and in the author’s view, incorrect opinion, and hence speaks his own words”. Is travel a necessary but not sufficient condition for personal enlightenment? Yes, said the majority present. Is the mental state, to follow omens and dreams, to cast aside fear, the only necessary condition, such that physical travel is only metaphorical? Yes, said the minority. At the end, Santiago thinks of the many roads he had travelled, and of the strange way God had shown him his treasure. (Yes, God has shown him his treasure.). The treasure was at the base of a sycamore in his home town. The wind, the same wind into which he had turned, was universal…not so simple then. Does the intention of the author preclude other interpretation, assuming we and the author know his intention? There is a lot to concern us.

 Speaking of authors’ intentions, we compared the prefaces of the older and newer editions of the book. Whereas the older version told of the humble monk who pleased the bay Jesus by juggling oranges, true to his place in the world, the latter seemed to boast of book sales to Bill Clinton, and Julia Roberts. I haven’t got that text but how did that creep in? This doesn’t sound like good advice for Santiago, but maybe this is just the publicity machine.

 We returned to Quarantine, and some historical perspective. Given that Crace admitted the odd invention, was it common practice to fast, daily in the wilderness during that period, and was the title well chosen? One of our number informed us that the title was based on the 14th century practice of isolating travelers for forty days in Italy during the Black death (quaranta giorna), extended from the original 30 days. So there could be no naming of Quarantiners as such more than 30 years before the Black Death. Of course, Jesus did indeed spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness, the basis of Lent. Perhaps, the title was well chosen in the sense of the 40 days of fast and healing through prayer, of healing Musa and the others, of the liberation of Mira and Marta. However, the proposer took Crace’s stated view that this Jesus was misguided, Musa a simple liar, not the Devil incarnate, and this tale offered no comfort in Christianity. The idea that Musa would later profit from his re-telling of the tale of the wilderness in such a cynical fashion was inspired. In passing, we all agreed that Musa was a cracking villain, right up there amongst the best in modern literature. However, surely his power was barely credible, particularly as he was so immobile. Are the Quarantiners really so gullible? It certainly adds to the story.

The proposer further contrasted the setting of Quarantine with the journey of The Alchemist. He talked of the characters as like people stuck in a lift, lacking the capacity for travel, adventure and change. The Alchemist emphasized the long tradition of the traveler, meeting new people, changing behaviour to suit different times and different environments. He commented also that the harsher the environment the more hospitable people become. In each of these books,, the desert is well depicted as that most inhospitable of environments in all senses of the word.

 So if travel is depicted as essential in the Alchemist, what does this say of the virtues of stable relationships, we wondered? Santiago leaves his true love to travel on; he would always have it in mind that he should travel on his spiritual quest. Whereas the Englishman tries to learn from books, mistakenly perhaps, Santiago learns from action. However, we should pause. Several posed questions. Does marriage interrupt your personal calling? Does everyday life get in the way? Are you ever too old? Is hedonism a respectable quest? What is your personal elixir of life? Coelho writes beautifully, simply, in a very imaginative style of the several omens and their significance. This ‘simple’ book makes you reflect on your own life and as such has proved a best seller across the world.  

 We returned to historical context, and talked of the influence of the Moors – the Moorish culture has significance and Santiago travels from his home in Spain to North Africa. The fact of historical context makes the men the dominant characters; is this unfortunate?

 Finally we took a rough poll, which of the two books did we prefer? On balance, and like the rest of the world, the majority preferred Coelho, dealing with universal truths, rather than Crace, an alternative telling or explanation of the birth of Christianity. However, we would continue to interpret the atheist or religious content of the book in accordance with our own histories.

Clark, Christopher: The Sleepwalkers

archdukeThe proposer indicated that the reason for selecting a book about the origins of the Great War was obvious. The 100th anniversary of WW1 was understandingly receiving much attention. The BBC had shown some excellent programmes and the articles on its website were well worth a read. As Fritz Stern said ‘The Great War is the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. Before turning to ‘The Sleepwalkers’ some context would be helpful.


The proposer indicated that in 1964 on the 50th anniversary of WW1 he was in 6th format school.  There were no Advanced Highers in those days so in history class WW1 was studied for a whole term. The British narrative was much as now: there was a great deal of emphasis on the horrors of trench warfare with 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the worst day for casualties in British history and 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele receiving much attention. The war poets, particularly Wilfred Owen, fitted into the theme. ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ which had recently opened as listened to with its emphasis on the ineptitude of the British generals.  Alan Clark’s book ‘The Donkeys’ also recently published mined the same ground. Incidentally Clark admitted later he had made up the ‘lions led by donkeys’ quote from Ludendorf.  The most significant British book published in 1964, however, was John Terraine’s ‘The Educated Soldier’ which attempted to rehabilitate Haig as the commander of the largest army ever put in the field by Britain, 60 divisions, and the victor of one of the greatest victories in British history, the 100 day campaign in 1918 which caused the Germans to seek the Armistice.

Interestingly the most widely read account in the UK of the First World War published a few months after OWALW in 1963 for the 50th anniversary was AJP Taylor’s ‘The FWW; an Illustrated History’ which sold 250,00 copies by 1990.The book was the first short popular narrative of the whole war and was dedicated to Littlewood. From start to finish Taylor depicted the war as a succession of accidents, the product of human error. Statesmen miscalculated. War was imposed on the statesmen of Europe by the railway timetables of mobilisation. He also claimed that the ‘lions led by donkeys’ applied to all the generals. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike.

The other distinctive British reinterpretation of WW1 was the excellent BBC TV series ‘The Great War’ aired on the new BBC 2 channel in 26 episodes in 1964 as the centrepiece of the BBC commemoration which achieved huge audiences.  Corelli Barnet and John Terraine were the principal scriptwriters and the programme was intended to be a robust defence of the British army and generals against the likes of Clark and Taylor. But while the script was balanced, the visuals overcame the words and the British narrative was reinforced.

It would be fair to say that Terraine’s view of the War and the successes of the British army and generals is widely held today by military historians but, despite their efforts, in popular perception in Britain the Great War has remained a saga of personal tragedies, illuminated by poetry, fiction, eg Pat Barker and Birdsong, and popular TV, eg Blackadder, a subject for remembrance rather than understanding.

This is a peculiarly British perspective; none of the other participants see it this way and it is instructive to consider why. One answer is that Britain in 1914 was not fighting directly for the defence of the homeland. All the other countries thought they were; Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary justified aggression as an act of pre-emptive defence.

The causes of the war have long been an issue everywhere including in Britain. German aggression has been one answer enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles but others have argued that the war just happened through the failure of European diplomacy. While the Terraine view of the military War is broadly accepted by military historians there is no such consensus on the causes of the War. In the 1960’s the ‘Germany was the aggressor’ view received a huge boost from the writings of Fritz Fischer, Professor of History at Hamburg, and his followers such as Imanuel Geiss. Fischer argued that Germany used the crisis of Sarajevo to seek to grab world power. The ‘Fischer thesis’ was that Hitlerite expansion was no aberration but part of the dynamic of German history since at least Bismarck. The proposer had heard Fischer speak during his time at Edinburgh University in the 1960s doing history and also heard AJP Taylor who supported the Fischer thesis. The Fischer thesis became the dominant view of the origins of WW1, not least because Fischer and his followers were German. Not surprisingly the main opposition to the Fischer thesis came from Germany.   

Given the attention produced by the centenary of the War, it seemed a good idea to choose one of the many books published recently. Why ‘The Sleepwalkers’?  As can be seen from the blurbs, many reviewers have said that it is the best account yet of the origins of the First World War. Even one of those opposed to the Clark thesis, Max Hastings, is quoted on the front cover saying ‘One of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published.’

Understanding the causes of the War is complicated by the huge amount of source material. Over 25,000 books on the origins of the war had been published at the last count 20 years ago. Clark makes the point that the sources are so extensive they help to explain why the outbreak of the War has proved susceptible to such a bewildering variety of interpretation. He says in his introduction ‘There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that cannot be supported from a selection of the available sources’


The majority of members of the Book Group did not find the book an easy read. Some disagreed. It was a dense, detailed analysis of the origins of the War and difficult perhaps to engage with for those unfamiliar with the period. Nonetheless almost everyone enjoyed the book, found it engrossing and stimulating with a good structure and narrative prose style.

One thought the work read like an academic thesis and as such made for a difficult long-winded read. It was beyond the redemption of editing. More significant perhaps was Clark’s interpretation and presentation of “facts” which this reader found unconvincing. While the number or references was impressive he felt that he could have presented a counter position had  he selected different sections from the same documents. In short he did not trust Clark.

Another liked the presentation from individual country viewpoints, and the highlighting of the tribal nature of humans. But the overall problem with the book was that it became a shopping list rather than a concise reasoned analysis or argument. By droning through the entire Serbian parliament and greater Slav-dom etc. etc. for 100 pages the point was lost. There was a difference between a ‘paper, a thesis’ and a log-book. This was a log book.

What was also worrying that by presenting the ‘chains of decisions’ in enormous detail, he sought to submerge the key points under a wave of trivia.

Another became progressively more disenchanted the more he read. He was so surprised by Clark’s pronounced Germanophilia that he had to look up his biography. And it turned out that Clark was not an expert on the First World War period, but was an expert on German history. He had studied in Berlin, married a German wife, and been awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the German Government. His pious renunciation of the blame game was disingenuous, as his objective, as noted by Bogdanor, was to exculpate Germany and Austria-Hungary as far as possible from their responsibility for starting the War, while pointing the finger of suspicion at all other possible candidates.

This reader was not convinced by Clark’s attempt, and, because of what he viewed as remarkably partisan omissions and distortions, by the end he also ceased to trust that anything he said was the whole truth. He would have much preferred if Clark had been upfront and said that as a German expert he was going to write a book that set out the German perspective on the events.

Members were not convinced by the psychobabble aspects of Clark’s analysis, eg the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the title was also criticised. Only in the last pages does Clark explain the reasoning for the title: ‘ The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, blind to the reality they were about to bring into the world’. This is unconvincing. The ‘watchful, calculated steps’ he had chronicled did not constitute sleepwalking. Secondly the American Civil War should have shown the protagonists of 1914 what modern war would be like. 

There was also some debate as to whether the book was an academic or popular work. It was agreed it fell between the two. It was too detailed to be a popular account yet assumed too much knowledge to work as a general introduction. 

One argued that despite its populist title, its initial narrative drive sagged too much to be a popular read, but it was too partisan, and too compressed in its argumentation, to rank as serious academic revisionism.

Inevitably there was discussion of Clark’s thesis of the origins of the War.      

The proposer pointed out that in Clark’s view the War was not inevitable.

The War had specific causes, principally the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the most successful terrorist act in history. Franz Ferdinand favoured a federal Habsburg empire, giving all the Slavs equal powers, a major threat to an expanded Serbia including all South Slavs. In addition he was strongly opposed to war with Serbia let alone Russia. From the Serb point of view he was their prime target.

Even so, argues Clark, the Austrian response to Serbia only become a general European War because the Russians, allied to the French, supported Serbia. Clark pointed out that the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was less draconian than the NATO one of 1999. One’s view of the legitimacy of the Austrian action will influence one’s assessment of the actions of Russia, France and Germany. Initial UK reaction was supportive of Austria. If Austria had immediately conducted a policing action against Serbia no one would probably have intervened. There are good reasons, explained  Clark, why they did not and this enabled opposition to Austria to grow. Even then many people in UK opposed support for Serbia and autocratic Russia. Germany’s crass attack on France and Belgium silenced critics.   

While there has been general praise for ‘The Sleepwalkers’ it is fair to say not all have been convinced by his thesis. Some members of the Group argued that, in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, ‘It is the most sophisticated and penetrating of all attempts to shift responsibility for the war away from Germany and Austria Hungary’. They considered that Clark was misleading in this attempt. For example, Clark says that Edward Grey the British Foreign Minister ‘showed no interest in the kind of intervention that might have provided Austria with other options than the ultimatum’. One member pointed out that Grey in fact made six proposals for international talks to Germany which were ignored. After the war Grey regretted he had approached Germany rather than Austria.  Not just Britain but France and Russia had argued for international talks to resolve the problem of the assassination, and only Austria-Hungary and Germany had refused to countenance such a solution.

The same member pointed out that mobilisation is quite different to a declaration of war, and that Clark lazily conflated the two. He also pointed out that whether there was a difference in the case of Bosnia between a protectorate and annexed territory might seem arcane, but that it was important to the outbreak of hostilities.

Others suggested that Clark’s discussion of the Austrian ultimatum showed him at his worst. No unbiased person could equate Milosevic, a war criminal, with Pasic. After a two-page rant about how the UN’s ultimatum in 1999 was worse than Austria’s, he limply concedes that Austria’s ultimatum was designed not to be accepted (did his editor insist on this?). Moreover the world had moved on a lot since 1914 and to compare the UN and Austria-Hungary is a jest not a serious piece of analysis. A serious analyst might rather have referred to contemporary reaction to the ultimatum – such as that of Grey, who turned pale and said it was “the most formidable document I had ever seen addressed by one State to another that was independent.”

Clark is over critical in a personal way of those with whom he disagrees. He downplays the German preparations for war and willingness to attack Russia and France. Some pointed out that Clark was seeking to redress the argument away from German responsibility and the book should not be read in isolation. 

Clark argues he is concerned with how the War happened not who to blame. His view is that responsibility is collective. The majority view in this country is that German aggression is to blame, as argued in the Treaty of Versailles. That has been a controversial view ever since; there is still no consensus on the causes of WW1. The view people take will depend on various factors including inclination and nationality. For example American reviewers of Clark, eg Professor Thomas Laquer in the London Review of books, have been broadly supportive of the Clark thesis, unsurprisingly as neutrals in the War until 1917. In his classic 1928 study the American historian Sidney Fey argued for shared responsibility for the War, essentially Clark’s view.  

History of course is written from the perspective of the times in which the writer is living.

Clark makes the interesting point that developments in our time, eg terrorism and suicide bombers, mean we have less sympathy with a rogue terrorist state such as Serbia, particularly after their violent irredentist nationalism in the 1990’s. Equally we are now more sympathetic to the Hapsburg Empire, a model for the EU. Almost all Hapsburg territory is now within the EU; a major exception is Western Ukraine.

Clark’s emphasis on contingency rather than necessity for war origins also fits into post-modernist theory which has influenced historical analysis as much as other disciplines. Agreement on the origins of World War 1 is not achievable. 

The discussion in the group reflected this. Some members were more persuaded by the Clark thesis than others. Others felt that Clark was not to be trusted, and that his book had received much more attention than it merited. There was general agreement, however, that the book had been an excellent and stimulating choice. 

Cordingly, David: Cochrane the Dauntless

The host for the evening introduced “Cochrane the Dauntless” by David Cordingly (2007) by explaining the reasons for his choice. He had first heard of Admiral Cochrane when visiting the famous M.V. Gardyloo in the company of a Government Minister. The Gardyloo was a sewage boat which sailed from Leith and deposited its cargo in the Firth of Forth. During this trip the Captain of the vessel enthused about the life and adventures of Cochrane, and insisted on giving two books from his extensive library to the Minister, who was himself a fan of Cochrane.

More recently the National Museum of Scotland, in partnership with the National Records of Scotland, featured an exhibition about Cochrane’s life and times. That exhibition,  between October 2011 and February 2012, also promoted the book by Cordingly. 
The decision to recommend the book was encouraged by the view that Cochrane was a Scot who had led a quite remarkable life. He had fought highly dramatic battles in Napoleonic times, becoming much celebrated, but had also been accused of conspiracy and fraud. He had recovered to have a whole new and highly celebrated naval career in South America. His life as so exciting that he was the inspiration for much naval fiction, including the work of Captain Marryat who served under him, C.S.Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, and more recently Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. The Government of Chile was still so grateful to Cochrane that they held an annual memorial service to him in Westminster Abbey. Yet Cochrane was little known to most Scots, and little celebrated in Scotland.
The purpose of the recommendation was therefore to promote Cochrane rather than the book per se. However, the book had the merit of being a serious and properly referenced work of history, rather than the sort of sensationalist work that Cochrane often attracted.
With a number of members on holiday and others committed elsewhere, several of those unable to attend helpfully submitted their views on the book and these helped to stimulate the discussion.
The Group agreed that the most impressive features of the book were the quality and thoroughness of the research. 
However, for some, this was also a negative feature reducing the book’s fictional feel. The lack of speculation about “the why and wherefores” of the action or the absence of “embroidery” around the interpretation of decisions or events was considered by them to have robbed the reader of a better appreciation of the man. One of our absent colleagues commented that he felt that “the man disappeared behind the detail”, while another by contrast suggested that Cordingly might have sacrificed insight in order to achieve an easy read.
The opposing view was that it was a merit of the book that it did not project the author’s own speculations on to his subject, as more populist biographers like to do, but instead recorded what was actually known, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. This group felt that a very clear picture emerged of Cochrane’s strengths and weaknesses.
The initial discussion centred on the reasons for Cochrane’s successes. We identified as important his positive attitude, his innovative and creative approach to problem solving, and his determination to master all of the practical skills/crafts associated with the maintenance and sailing of ships. In addition, his fearlessness and his desire to lead from the front in naval battles were important. He was greatly respected by those who served under him, both because his ships suffered relatively few casualties and because his crew shared in the prize money won through his lucrative actions.  These factors, together with his indefatigable spirit, were considered to be the features that made the greatest contribution to his successes. One described him as an extraordinary polymath, moving from state sanctioned pirate to politician to inventor with varying degrees of success.
The importance of the navy in the war with the French had not been fully appreciated by the group before, but the “piratical” nature of the warfare clearly suited Cochrane’s maverick nature. The Admiralty made the most of this, appreciating his seamanship and his worth to the service, and cleverly deploying Cochrane’s potent mix of assets. It ensured his promotion and marked him out as “one to be watched”. The Admiralty was shrewd, and generally tolerant, in their deployment of Cochrane. They supported him when it suited, but finally closed ranks against him when his challenge to the establishment got out of hand.
We noted that patronage was a major factor affecting progress within the navy, and Cochrane benefited from family – and friends of family – interventions to secure positions at critical points in his career.
Some of our group considered Cochrane a flawed man, impulsive and reckless in both his deeds and in his total disregard for the establishment and authority. He was motivated by money to an excessive degree, no doubt reflecting his financially insecure upbringing. He also displayed a degree of paranoia on many occasions.
But we all marvelled at Cochrane’s resilience, deeply hurt by the stock exchange scandal. His move to South America, where he helped to liberate Chile, Peru and Brazil from their colonial masters, salvaged his pride and cemented his reputation as a great naval commander.
The group debated the reasons for British naval advantage at this time. Factors such as the design of ships and the quality of their build, the standard of equipment, the quality of training and tactics were all suggested as contributing factors. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, superiority came from the organisation and control exercised by the Admiralty itself. A combination of a skilled workforce, documented rules, slick processes and effective communication systems were developed, managed and deployed to great advantage.
Moreover, the financial model, which was built on the proceeds of the capture and disposal of enemy assets, was able to sustain the necessary scale and quality of the shipbuilding and ship repair industries to support the British fleet.
The conversation drifted into a discussion about other notable Scottish persons who, like Cochrane, had not been given credit for their achievements in Scotland. Adam Smith and James Clerk Maxwell were the first to be identified, but a virtual tsunami of names followed and the discussion lost coherence as differences of view emerged.
In order to remain united we returned to Cochrane and confirmed that with only one exception the entire group enjoyed the book. All were impressed by Cordingly’s research, but many wanted to learn more about the man and his relationships.
One member observed that it was a good idea to introduce a book about someone everyone knows a little about but not enough. Having read and discussed the book, I suspect most of our group would agree that they now know a little bit more about Cochrane, but not yet enough.

Cronin, A.J.: The Citadel

The host for the evening and the proposer of “The Citadel” (1937) was a retired General Practitioner. He opened proceedings by explaining the reasons for his choice of book and detailing the author’s background.

 He explained that he first became aware of A. J. Cronin (“AJ”) when his family watched Dr Finlay’s Casebook. BBC TV broadcast the series between 1962 and 1971 and, while he did not admit to watching all 191 episodes, the programme had undoubtedly influenced his subsequent career choice. He was smitten by the writings of “A.J” after reading “Hatters Castle”, and subsequently sought out most of Cronin’s other books. He first read “The Citadel” in the 1970’s.

 “The Citadel” was published in 1937 and was a global best seller. It sold 100,000 copies in the first three months of becoming available and was reprinted at a rate of 10,000 per week. It established Cronin as one of the most popular novelists of the 1930’s. By today’s standards the novel elevated Cronin to multi-millionaire status. In common with a number of his books it was turned into a successful film in 1938, winning four Oscar nominations and grossing $2.5 million.

 Cronin was born in Cardross in Dumbartonshire in 1896. His father was an Irish Catholic and his mother was from a staunchly Protestant family.  They lived in Cardross for six years, but his father’s deteriorating health forced them to move to Helensburgh. There he died suddenly from pulmonary T.B. when Cronin was only seven years old. His mother then took “AJ” to stay with her parents in Dumbarton. She later moved to Glasgow where she obtained employment as a sanitary inspector.

 “AJ” was an all rounder. He was gifted academically, and also excelled in athletics and football. He moved from St Aloysius College to Glasgow University having won a Carnegie Scholarship to study medicine. After a short spell in the Royal Navy, he returned to Medical School, graduating in 1919 with honours. He met his future wife, May, also a medical student about this time. He went on to obtain the additional higher medical degrees of MRCP and MD, as well as the Diploma in Public Health.

 After graduating he worked in various hospitals in Glasgow and Dublin. Whilst employed as medical superintendant in Lightburn Hospital near Glasgow, a post for an unmarried doctor, he was pressured into marrying May as she had announced that she was pregnant. Following a quiet wedding in Glasgow, they moved to the Welsh mining town of Treherbert where he was briefly employed as a GP assistant. He moved again to a GP post in the larger nearby mining town of Tredegar where in 1924 May gave birth to their first son Vincent. 

In the same year they moved to London, where “AJ” took up an appointment as the Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain.

 While in this post he published reports linking coal dust exposure to pulmonary disease. In 1926 he bought a medical practice in the City. His second son, Patrick was born in the same year. He successfully built up his practice, but he suffered from a chronic gastric ulcer.  This, together with significant profits from investments made by an Investment Group to which “AJ” had been introduced to by a grateful patient, influenced his decision to leave medicine.  In 1930 he put down the stethoscope and picked up the pen, thereby fulfilling a longstanding ambition.

 AJ’s third son, Andrew was born in 1937 by which time he had become a successful author. In 1939 he moved to the USA where his reputation was already established. “The Citadel” won the National Book Award in the USA in 1937 and in a Gallup poll in 1939 it was voted the most interesting book that readers had read.

 He was in great demand and moved around the country promoting his work. The family never stayed more than a year in any one house until he eventually purchased a house in Connecticut in1947. He remained there until moving to Switzerland in 1955. By this time he was a very wealthy man, and his move was probably motivated by his tax situation.  He died in 1981.

 Some members of our group had experienced difficulty in acquiring a copy of the book and there was a concern that there would be differences between the various editions read. This concern proved unfounded. More amusingly, kindle editions of Cronin’s novels, including “The Citadel”, had newly become available on the day of our meeting. Some thought that the demand created by our members and followers had forced Amazon’s hand. Others suggested that this simply confirmed a growing interest in Cronin’s writings as a result of the publication of the second biography of his life (“The man who created Dr Finlay” by Alan Davies, 2011). This publication, and a discussion paper published in the journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on the possible influence that “The Citadel had on the formation of the NHS, seem to have stimulated renewed interest in Cronin’s work.  Whatever the truth, the coincidence, if that is what it was, proved a source of great frustration to all of those who had had difficulty obtaining a copy.

 There was a unanimous view that the book was an “easy” read. It was a “good yarn” written in what one of our group described as “stage direction” style. It was agreed that the strength of the book came partly from AJ being able to draw on his own experiences, both personal and professional. While the autobiographical basis of the novel successfully captured the nature of the challenges encountered by Dr Andrew Manson, it was also extremely controversial, as a number of people threatened to sue Cronin over his depiction of them in his characters.

 The group spent some time trying to understand the reasons for their generally positive view of the book. It was described as a polemic, challenging the social conventions of the time and dealing with the exploitative nature of parts of the medical profession in the 1930’s. The crusading theme of the novel was a major factor in its popularity. The book was dedicated to uncovering systematically the unsatisfactory practices of significant sections of the medical profession, and to confirming the view that money was indeed the root of all evil. The book was shocking, and it generated controversy and moral outrage. It uncovered the practices of a profession which hid behind the mysteries of medical science. This sensational content was an important factor in the group’s enjoyment of the novel.

 We discussed the wider impact of the book. Its popularity both here in the UK and in the USA focussed attention on medical services and the way they were organised. The criticisms of the medical profession delivered through the eyes of those working within the service, and from the perspective of those on the receiving end, had undoubtedly had an influence on the debate that eventually led to the creation of the NHS in 1948. Indeed some suggested that the book had a profound affect on these deliberations. Nye Bevan, one of the architects of the NHS, probably knew Cronin when Bevan served on the Tredegar Hospital Committee, and may well have been influenced by the book.

 Many of our Group considered that at least part of their enjoyment of the book could be attributed to their familiarity with the social conventions of the time. All were anxious to point out that they were too young to be directly involved but they were all able to relate to the experiences of their parents!

 Other factors contributing to our enjoyment were AJ’s persuasive narrative skills, his acute observations, graphic descriptions and his impressive characterisations. Other compelling features were the idealistic nature of the plot, combined with the “feel good” factor, and the triumph of right over wrong.

 On the negative side some thought that the novel was “wordy” and that the writing was “pedestrian” particularly when compared with other notable authors. One member questioned the pace of the novel. He pointed out that the first part of the book, describing Manson’s life in Wales, occupied some 56% of the book, his period in London 36% and the passages dealing with his wife’s death, his selling up and the “trial” only 8%. He suggested that one explanation was that the earlier passages were autobiographical while the rest was not. This raised a question about the writing process adopted by “AJ” and speculation over whether or not he planned the structure of the novel or simply allowed it to emerge as he wrote.

 One member pointed to apparent contradictions in the book, such as investigations into lung disease but the acceptance of heavy smoking, and the toleration of the unhygienic practices of his dentist friend, Boland, while being very critical of poor hygienic standards elsewhere.

 The discussion moved on to consider whether or not the characteristics associated with the provision of medical practice, as described by “AJ”, still exist today. The increasing importance of private practice and the presence of more and more competition were cited as examples of factors that have remained features common to medical service delivery, both pre and post NHS. It was, however, accepted that such a comparison had little meaning. The NHS, having brought structure to the previously unstructured organisation of medical services, had had to meet the challenges of rapid medical advances and growing individual expectations, and these factors ruled out any serious attempt at comparison.

 Our host encouraged us to read more of “AJ’s” work and some of the group seemed motivated to do so. However, no one anticipated a profound career changing impact as a consequence.

Chekhov, Anton: The Cherry Orchard

The work under discussion was Chekhov’s last play  “The Cherry Orchard” (1904), the first time the group had discussed a play. The proposer (an established writer) said that he had picked the play largely because he had been trying his hand at writing a full-length play, and Chekhov was considered a master of the craft. Chekhov was unusual in being a major success in two literary forms – the short story as well as the play.

The play had not been performed in English until 1934. There had been many interesting productions since, such as the 1978 version directed by Peter Hall, with a stellar cast including Ralph Richardson as Firs. Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley were amongst the actresses to have played Ranevskaya. Even Monty Python’s Flying Circus had, bizarrely, got in on the act.

The proposer had suggested that readers would need at least two readings to get to grips with the play, and he himself was uncovering yet further meanings after the fifth reading! Indeed all had found the second reading much more rewarding, not least because they spent less time flicking back to sort out who was speaking given the confusion of Russian names.

And the play received an unambiguous thumbs-up. “My favourite dramatist! Subtle, low key expressions of emotion.” “Really enjoyed it – how it catches the Russian psyche and the paradoxes in Russian society as it undergoes a great upheaval”. “What an enormous amount contained in such a small compass!” “Complex, oblique, resonant, poignant, ironic”. And – decisively – “what a pleasure to have a reason to buy another copy of Chekhov’s works, as an old girlfriend went off with my last one!”

Only minor reservations were expressed. The characters were distinct Russian “types”, and a stage production would have to avoid exaggerating them. Some of the dialogue was a bit stilted, and the comic characters a little overdone (although that might work well on stage).  There were also some rather clumsy slabs of exposition of the past of certain characters.

So what was it all about? What about Trofimov’s strictures on the state of Russian society, often sounding like a Communist Party Manifesto: “The huge majority of the intelligentsia do nothing…they treat peasants like animals…the workers eat disgusting food… sleep, without pillows, thirty or forty to a room…” Was it a prediction of the Russian Revolution?

Not so, after some debate, was our conclusion: Chekhov was accurately, and memorably, describing Russian society as it was. He included the economic activity (eg Lopakhin’s efforts and the English investment in Pishchik’s white clay) that was to give Russia the highest growth rate of any European country before the First World War. The Russian Revolution was not, as the Marxists would have it, an inevitable product of economic and social forces. It was an example of the contingent in history, with the First World War being the biggest contingent factor. And indeed the Red Army had come very close to military defeat. What Chekhov was really doing was reflecting on the human condition and how some people adapt and others don’t: it was about ordinary lives, not great revolutionaries.

A major theme was time, and more specifically the challenge of change, at both a personal and a social level. Thus, at the level of personal change, Ranevskaya, Gayev and Anya have to come to terms with the loss of their wealth and status, their cherry orchard. For most of the play Ranevskaya in particular has been in denial about this, and indeed in recent years she has been in flight from all the tragedies of her life. Only at the end is she – and Gayev and Anya – able to move forward more positively. As Gayev cheerfully says: “Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all worried, we were suffering, and then, once the matter was finally and irrevocably settled, we all calmed down, we even cheered up…”. Or as Trofimov puts it: “To live in the present we must first redeem our past, finish with it, and we can redeem it only by suffering…”.

Chekhov also paints a wider picture of social change. There is the decline of the whole landowning class, the impact of serf emancipation, and the rise of Lopakhin (the businessman from the serf family). There are the town dwellers interested in buying dachas, and the rise of a new type of servant on-the-make in Yasha, contrasted with Firs the traditional servant.

Love is another theme, although most of the love is not reciprocated. The only two relationships that are in any sense successful are that of Anya and Trofimov (and how long is that going to last given his eccentricity?) and that of Ranevskaya and her rascal lover. Indeed wasn’t Ranevskaya the only character in a sexual relationship? Hmmm, well, some doubts about Anya and Trofimov sneaking off to the river– remember how coy a dramatist had to be then!

Chekhov makes fine use of symbolism to deepen his themes and create resonance. The cherry orchard itself is a dominant and protean symbol, and the noise of trees being felled off-stage at the end is one of the most poignant moments in theatre. In addition to representing their wealth, the orchard is explicitly identified with Russia (“All Russia is our orchard”); with the past – the souls of dead serfs and serf-owners; with happiness; and with the youth of Gayev and Ranevskaya (she thinks she sees their mother in the shape of a tree). Is the emphasis on it flowering despite the frost the idea of moving forward despite adversity? The white colour of the blossom – with connotations such as innocence or virginity – is repeatedly stressed.

The bunch of keys at Varya’s waist – taken off and thrown at Lopakhin –symbolises not just ownership of the house but her chastity, which is offered to Lopakhin, but not in the end accepted. The “distant sound of a string breaking, as if in the sky”, which happens twice, most notably at the end, must also have a symbolic purpose. Its purpose is suggested first by the sound “having preceded the troubles” and secondly by the stage direction “a dying, melancholy sound” followed by the sound of the axe.

Some of the characters also take on a symbolic role. Firs symbolises the past of the landowning classes. At one level leaving Firs locked in the house at the end can be seen as another example of carelessness by the family towards their retainers; at the symbolic level it could be seen as their acceptance of the need to move on.

Anya, by contrast, is identified as the future, as the hope of the family. She has moved on from the past: “Why don’t I love the cherry orchard as I used to?” and is the most positive of all at the end: “We shall plant a new cherry orchard…and, Mama, you shall smile!

But there was plenty of debate about other characters. What to make of Charlotta? She is herself unclear: “where I’m from and who I am – I don’t know”. Given her fairground background, she is outside the social norms of the others. And what is the role of her magic? Is this just another way of escaping from reality for the family? Is there an echo of “The Tempest” – Shakespeare’s last play? And why is Chekhov at such pains to stress her man’s peaked cap, her gun, her imagined conversation with a female “beau idéal”?

“Well, of course” weighed in our resident Freudian “Chekhov is going as far as he dare to portray her as a l*****n!” This had them rolling in the aisles. “So if she’s a l*****n why does she take out half a cucumber and chew on it then??!”

(Well, I say, this was hotting up! Time to open another bottle of this tasty 2005 and stop worrying about how to spell all these pesky names…)

What did we make of Trofimov? He was given the two best speeches in the play, showing great analytical gifts. But he was very tactless: for example, on leaving Lobakhin, the self-made man, all he can do is advise him to stop waving his hands around. He was young and optimistic, but preternaturally aged. He gave speeches on the importance of hard work while doing nothing himself (other than, by the end, a little translation). He considered himself too superior to fall in love. Whatever did Anya see in him? Was he simply the type of the eternal student, or was he too intended to have some more symbolic role? Ranevskaya makes a telling comment: “You’re boldly solving all the important questions, but isn’t that because you are young, because you haven’t had time to suffer…”

There was less doubt about Yasha: he was a man of appetite, an unpleasant man on the make. He smells of food, he finishes the champagne (and knows it is not good), he ignores his mother, he exploits the affections of Dunyasha, he rushes to pick up the gold coins. But Gayev, generally portrayed as a billiards-obsessed fool, sees through him, and regularly sends him away complaining about his smell.

“And what then about the famous scene in which Lobakhin fails to propose to Varya ? This is sometimes interpreted as the product of a combination of accidents, but surely it was implausible that someone as wordlywise as Lobakhin would be deflected if he really wanted to propose? Was he not being pressed by Ranevskaya and really rather indifferent ?”

“Well exactly – the problem is that he is really in love with Ranevskaya! And so are Trofimov and Pishchik … in the sense of being entranced by her, maybe not in the sense of intending a physical relationship with a much older woman.” (Well, I don’t know about that, thought your scribe, trying to combine writing down this exciting new insight with a calming gulp of claret, what if Joanna Lumley is playing her?) “Well if that’s right why does Lopakhin turf her out of her house?” “Because she’s going back to her lover in Paris.” “But does he know that?…”

The discussion now moved to Chekhov’s stagecraft. It was remarkable how much depth lay beneath each of the characters – you saw just the tip of the iceberg, but Chekhov had worked out the whole of the iceberg for each one. They said little, but there was a very large sub-text. This aspect of Chekhov – which had been said to influence the method style of acting – had particularly attracted the proposer. To try to achieve such depth for the characters in his own work he had written a long monologue for each, little of which survived into the play as text.

Chekhov had also worked out in detail how each character related to every other character, and no character was simply neutral to another. This was a complex web of relationships to sustain.  It was illuminating to read the play focussing on just one of the characters, and observe how subtly, in what depth and how consistently they were portrayed. All the characters offered superb scope to an actor or actress.

Chekhov went further in terms of prescriptive stage directions than was considered normal in the theatre. This may partly reflect the difficulties he had with Stanislavsky, the director of the first production, who insisted on treating the play as a tragedy. In this play he also followed a pattern common to him of having four acts with a few months passing during the time of the play – thus following the “unity of place” but not of time.

But in what sense was the play a “comedy”, as Chekhov stated on the title page? While there were amusing aspects to the play, it was not a comedy in the conventional sense (nor a tragedy). The word was perhaps used more in the broad sense of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” or Balzac’s “La Comédie Humaine”.

And reflecting ironically on the comedy of human life would fit well with our feeling that this was a work by a man who knew he was near the end of his life: it has that sense of perspective and poignancy. In our discussion of Marquez in 2006 we noted that:

“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 – Marquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love”.

 And Chekhov in “The Cherry Orchard” could be added to that list as a great artist at the end of his life giving us his own reflections on time, change, and love.

The conversation drifted on, veering from Chekhov to malt versus grain whisky, and then veering off (don’t ask me how, I was savouring the claret, not taking notes) to the subject of bow ties, and who could tie one these days. “Indeed, I saw someone in a gents at a function take off his clip bow-tie, and replace it with an untied real bow tie in which he could look cool after dinner…how about that?”

How about that reflection on change indeed, but finally your reporter took his leave of the proposer’s elegant West End establishment and gingerly descended the stairs.

And what should there be standing in the hall? A cherry tree, in full bloom. Shedding a little blossom.

Well I never!! How about that for stage management?

Crane, Stephen: The Red Badge of Courage

Unusually, the proposer was absent attending a celebration in Belgium. However, he did manage to send an introduction to the book, praising it as an exploration of courage, the nature of manhood, self-realisation and personal values. Of relevance to subsequent discussion, he noted that Steven Crane was born after the American Civil War in 1871, and had no personal experience of armed conflict. The Red Badge of Courage (RBC) was written in 1895 between “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets” (1893) and “The Open Boat” (1897), about a shipwreck. The Red Badge of Courage was his most famous work, by some margin, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential American novels. Unfortunately Crane suffered from ill health throughout his life, and died from TB in 1900, when only 28 years old.

 The discussion was lively. No one present had direct experience of armed conflict,with many born in the post-WWII baby boom, and therefore in a similar situation to Crane, born six years after the American Civil War. Similarly, it was difficult to understand fully the impact of the book on 1890’s America from a perspective more than a century into the future. One member tried to draw an analogy between RBC and the recent success of ‘The Black Watch’ by Gregory Burke, but most thought this was stretched.

 The first point of discussion was the description of conflict, bearing in mind the inexperience of both author and reviewers. All but one (‘not authentic’) thought that the description had an air of realism, and was particularly strong in representing the ‘fog of war’, the inability of the participant to comprehend or act on the whole conflict, fighting their own personal battle with no knowledge of strategic imperatives, if they exist. There was praise for the description of ‘blood and gore’, of a face shattered by a musket ball, of mental breakdown, and of the protracted act of dying of the tall solider.

 For example, consider the passage, “Another had the gray seal of death already upon his face. His lips were curled in hard lines and his teeth were clinched. His hands were bloody from where he had pressed them upon his wound. He seemed to be awaiting the moment when he should pitch headlong. He stalked like the specter of a soldier, his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown.”

 Attention was drawn to the Homeric references at the start of the book, and the descriptions of suffering after the first battle. One could see parallels being drawn between the imagined and real conflict, presaging the experience of the 1914-18 conflict in Europe. Yet, the book was still ambiguous at the end as one was not sure whether war was rather being depicted as a necessary evil to ensure the testing of the mettle of the protagonists.

 Was the description of the battle too erudite for the assumed narrator, and ordinary foot soldier? Certainly some thought this detracted from the authenticity. On the other hand, much of the book was written from diaries and other sources so the author had access to first-person descriptions. It was mentioned that the Civil War occurred soon after the development of photography, and probably the author had access to the many photographs (Brady, Cook et al.). Apparently this was the fourth war to be photographed after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Crimean War (1854–1856) and Indian Rebellion of 1857. More generally, we discussed whether personal experience was necessary to write great novels; the general consensus was against this view and there were certainly many counter examples. Yet there was a sense that Crane was living vicariously an experience which he had been denied through birth and ill health. Certainly his wide travel as a reporter revealed a taste for adventure.

 Next, the discussion centred on the intended audience. Was this a male viewpoint, intended for a male audience? In general, the consensus was that this was probably so in 1895, although it might now attract a wider audience. Was it intended to shock? Again the general consensus was affirmative, although the motivation was in dispute. Some thought it was written partly as an anti-war tome, but most thought not, thinking the emphasis on the baptism of fire or coming of age as the recruit eventually passes the test outweighed any description of the pointlessness of the conflict. A substantial minority thought that the book had been written with some cynicism, by a writer more anxious to establish his reputation than to say something important about the nature of personal experience or the nature of war. As evidence, they cited the rapidly shifting subjects of interest, and the fact that ‘Maggie’ had received poor criticism. Further, they suggested that the use of the American Civil War, rather than some other conflict, helped to boost the author’s reputation and sales as the audience had a thirst for books about the conflict.

 This brings up the next issue, whether the book was really about the American Civil War. (Chancellorsville was mentioned as a possible battle). The group were fairly sure that this was about war, or indeed the passage to manhood, and the topic was generic rather than specific. To support that view, there are many characters specified as ‘the youth’, the ‘tall soldier’, the ‘loud soldier’, the ‘tattered soldier’ etc, so this emphasises the Everyman nature of the book. (Of course some characters like the youth are also named by third parties.) Throughout the book there is no mention of context or purpose. In the passages in which the tattered man asks Henry where he has been hit, his lack of a wound is possibly a metaphor both for his trial by ordeal that is still to come, but also of Crane’s lack of personal experience. Developing this view one thought that war was only a metaphor, and that the book was about any rite of passage through strife. Reference was made to conflicts in the playground at primary school!

 In conclusion, the majority view was of a book on the experience of conflict, which defines a man; about war, not for or against war but a realistic depiction; a book with no historical context or political agenda, intended for as wide an audience as possible, but primarily a male audience. All agreed the book was very well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. They congratulated the absent proposer on a good choice.

Carver, Raymond: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Wodehouse, PG: Very Good, Jeeves

 Introducing the books (“Very Good, Jeeves” By P.G. Wodehouse and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver) the proposer said that he had chosen two deliberately contrasting collections of short stories. This might lead on to a general discussion about the nature of the short story as a literary form.

P. G. Wodehouse was a writer he had read for most of his life. His father had a small number of favourite books, which it was his habit to re-read regularly to the exclusion of new material. A Jeeves book was one of the favoured few, and as a result the proposer had first read P.G.Wodehouse at ten or twelve. He had not read Carver until 1989, at a time when he was reading widely amongst American fiction.

Other than that the proposer – himself the author of a volume of short stories, as well as novels – did not wish to add any introduction, saving his comments for the general discussion.

Which started with the ticklish issue of how best to read a collection of short stories. Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms to have a collection of short stories? The whole point of a short story was that it was short, and could be read at one sitting. To read several at one sitting could induce symptoms of over-indulgence just as surely as having too many chocolates from a chocolate box.

One member confessed to leaving the Wodehouse in his pocket and indulging in one story per bus journey. As it later transpired that this member was one of those driven to laugh out loud by Jeeves, this might account for the bemused expression of Edinburgh bus passengers observed in recent times, which until now had been attributed to the blizzard of roadworks for the new trams.

On the other hand, both writers seemed to have thought carefully about the order in which the stories appeared, much as a singer might do for an album, and as far as we knew the stories had not been published separately. For example, opined one, Carver put his second strongest story (“Shall We Dance”) at the beginning, and his strongest (the title story) second last, leaving as a black joke for last the story which ended with the lines “He said ‘I just want to say one more thing’. But then he could not think what it could possibly be”.

“The strongest, you said? I thought it was the weakest!” retorted another, indicating that not all had seen the stories in the same light.

A difference of view that emerged most clearly over “Very Good, Jeeves”. No, Jeeves, not very good. “Stereotyped!” “Did such a world ever really exist?” “Desperately dated –even the humour!”. “Repetitive”. “Formulaic – couldn’t be bothered finishing it!” pronounced these members with all the heartless severity of a panel of Strictly Come Dancing judges.

Yet others had been rolling in the aisles. They loved the vitality and range of the language, the sparkling similes and metaphors – for example the bad –tempered householder “closing the door with the delicate caution of one sweeping flies off a sleeping Venus”. They loved the well-oiled machinery of the plots, which resolved everything on the last page.

“Simply hugely enjoyable”. The plot with the same song being repeated by four singers was hysterically funny. The stories were particularly intriguing when Jeeves disapproved of Bertie’s taste in clothing or art, and contrived to alter it. The food faddist and prototype feminist Pyke who threatened Bingo’s cholesterol-loaded food and connubial bliss was deliciously amusing. And so was the debate between Jeeves and Bertie as to whether Uncle George’s barmaid was proletarian or “of sturdy lower middle-class stock, sir”.

Reflecting further, the audience voting for Jeeves noted that this world had really been created by Wodehouse. It was an entirely safe, comic world, in which the biggest threats were aggressive Aunts. Bertie was a child-like figure, and Jeeves a nanny-like figure who could resolve all problems (perhaps reflecting Wodehouse being put in the charge of a nanny from age two). Bertie was an asexual figure, although golf lovers were promised that Wodehouse’s series of golf stories were less innocent. Perhaps escapist stories of this kind were particularly attractive to a generation decimated by the First World War (this particular collection was published in 1930).

And a lot of skill had gone into creating these apparently effortless stories. “The lightness and fluidity of Wodehouse I think obscures some very careful timing and craft. For all his far and wide use of the Englsih language, there is not a single wasted word, and the comedy is unfolded with rapier precision…”. Wodehouse had given an interview setting out some of his ideas on composition, for example: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel that the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start…The thing to do is say to yourself ‘What are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them…”.

What ho! Spiffing! But what about this Carver – a bit of a rum cove?

Well, no – Raymond Carver’s dark world received a generally enthusiastic response. “Powerful!”. “Challenging!”. “Brilliant stuff – a whole desperate society emerged from a few sentences”. “Reminded me of a Country and Western song – a compliment – with a refrain of failed relationships and alcohol amongst blue collar people in the Mid-West.” “I liked the way meanings and new perceptions emerged as you reflected on the story”. “Liked Carver more than when I read him twenty five years ago, perhaps because of more life experience since!”.

“Initially I didn’t like the abrupt conclusions, but then I tuned into the stories and found them refreshing”. “Presents you with a raw slab of life as it is, with only one or two nerve endings going into the future, and a few more into the past”. “You have to read with great care, because if you miss one word the whole meaning changes”. “The stories have the concentration, complexity and chiselling of a poem”. “The opening lines really grab you and pull you in – e.g. ‘I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was…’”. ” “Like an Edward Hopper painting, where the characters tend to be gazing out of a window, in which there is a sinister sense of an untold story”.

So straight tens from all the judges? No, not quite. “Eventually the dark plots about alcohol and failed relationships begin to pall. What about all the joy and excitement also to be found in blue-collar life? He’s a one-trick pony…”. “Stylistically Carver comes from the school of minimalism. This begs the question, when we applaud the writing, are we applauding the fact that so much meaning can be expressed in so few words? Is this the aim of the writing style? I found the style overbearing, however, and it leaves little room for the reader to manoeuvre… I found I had really to slow down the reading and study the words which was in one sense quite rewarding, but also quite restrictive”.

“Some stories too dark for a female reader”. “‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ is similar to Kafka’s ‘A Knock at the Manor Gate’. But by comparison Carver’s story is crude and merely sickening, whereas Kafka’s was well-paced and held a genuine tension throughout”. “I’d rather spend an evening with Wodehouse than Carver!”.

A feature of Carver’s characters was that, although they talked, they did not really communicate by talking. They were too inarticulate to do so. They could only express the underworld of their emotions by taking action – for example by mutely throwing rocks. Indeed that was perhaps a common feature of American culture (and Presidents? ventured your correspondent, swiftly to be silenced). Indeed rocks were a recurrent motif – perhaps a symbol? – in several of the stories, once being explicitly used as a murder weapon.

But while most could agree on their liking for the stories, we could not all agree on what the stories meant. What, for example, did the ending of “Why Don’t You Dance?” mean. For one, it meant that the angst of the older man had been transferred to the younger generation. For another, the young woman had been disturbed both by her sexual attraction to the old man, and by a glimpse of the pain of the failed relationship of an older generation (and the foreboding example for the young of the failures of the older generation was a major feature of the stories). For another reader it was possible that the young couple had murdered the older man.

But did different interpretations matter? There was no “solution” to the story – just a sense of ambivalence and of unease which we shared.

In terms of influences, many (including Carver himself) had identified Chekhov. And it was certainly true that Chekhov had shown how to replace the traditional plot-structured short story and its conventional beginning, middle and end with a story that reflected the messiness of life in a random, godless, meaningless universe (“dirty realism”, in the phrase sometimes applied to Carver’s work).

However, their actual writing styles were very different, and a much closer influence was surely that of the early Hemingway (see our discussion of “Men Without Women” on 27 February 2008). A story such as “Hills without Elephants” seemed to be the template for the minimalist, ambivalent Carver story of human misery. The pared-down prose style, with its simple vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs was surely handed down by Hemingway to Carver as to so many other American writers. Hemingway too wrote of the Mid-West, and of fishing. Even setting one of the stories in northern Italy seemed to be a nod, conscious or otherwise, in the direction of Papa Hemingway.

So how to compare Wodehouse and Carver? On the surface they could not be more different. Happiness versus sadness, laughter versus rage. Writing to satisfy, as opposed to writing to disturb. Carver chose to point his lens into dark and sordid places, while Wodehouse studiously did exactly the opposite, and never took anything too seriously. Wodehouse depicts a world of high flying fancy, where emotional angst is present but which is trivialised amidst the comforts of an affluent existence. Wodehouse’s world attracts us because it is both escapist and fun, but we are shoe-horned uncomfortably into Carver’s world and come out gasping for air. Nor does Carver provide something positive that is asserted, as classic tragedy might.

In the terms suggested by E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, Wodehouse is offering “flat” characters, who do not develop, whereas Carver is offering “round” characters. Little as we glimpse of Carver’s characters, they develop in the course of his minimalist stories, and this subtlety is one of the main attractions of Carver’s work. As Forster pointed out, a complex plot – of the Wodehouse, or Dickens, variety – is much simpler with “flat “ characters. However, one should not make a value judgement and impose a hierarchy in identifying such differences between Wodehouse and Carver.

And there were also things in common between Wodehouse and Carver. Both used dialogue very well. The theme of lunacy appeared in both, although in a very amusing and reassuring way in Wodehouse. Both writers displayed considerable interest in alcohol. It is seen as a dangerous and destructive force in Carver (and it had played such a role in his own life) while for Wodehouse it is always comic. Thus the Wodehouse definitive taxonomy of hangovers:

• the Broken Compass,

• the Sewing Machine,

• the Comet,

• the Atomic,

• the Cement Mixer,

• the Gremlin Boogie.

A fine note on which to end, thought your scribe, as I could understand it, but off they went again, this time on to the short story as a literary form:

Surely all short story writers wanted really to become novelists, to display their imagination to the full? Well no, not necessarily. In America – and also in South America, with magic realism – there was a stronger tradition of writers focussing only on the short story. (Reflecting a shorter attention span? I ventured, only to be frostily silenced once more…). Whereas in the UK a book of short stories was nowadays only seen by publishers as a stepping stone to a novel, or as a follow up to a novel, which seemed a pity, as short stories were still very popular. Was the British public being short-changed?…

Interesting that there are many fewer famous collections of short stories than famous novels. And also that so many great films have been made from developing short stories, while many bad films have been made by trying to cram in all the plot of a novel…

The short story suits science fiction, because it is about ideas rather than characters…

But then so often short stories are based on something that has happened to an author, or something they have overheard, or read about, rather than the fully imagined world of a novel…

Somerset Maugham is a very interesting short story writer to revisit. He is also someone who is economical with words, and adept in describing both the physical and psychological worlds of the colonial society he depicts…

You should not place the short story and the novel in a hierarchy of a value, and you should not see a short story as a sort of failed novel. William Boyd – author of both novels and short stories – had recently written a couple of excellent articles on the short story, in which he argued it was a separate art form, and one which – through oral story telling – predated the novel…

Ah well, story telling has been well supported in Scotland recently. Yes indeed, only last week I was in my allotment having a conversation about failed relationships over the compost heap, when I heard a story-teller approaching and telling a story to allotment holders…

!!!Run that one by me again?

Well, I think that’s what he said… but I’m afraid that by now even your devoted correspondent was reaching the end of his attention span.

Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! I’m off to do the Gremlin Boogie….