A Great Book In My Universe

Mostly Harmless

Before reading Mostly Harmless – the fifth and last book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” – I looked at some reviews written by other readers. Many of them were negative. Douglas Adams was depressed when he wrote it. The ending was terrible. And so on.

Personally, I thought this was a great book. In saying that I refer you to the following paragraph from Mostly Harmless:

“We live in strange times. We also live in strange places: each in a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own.”

We see the truth of this statement every day on the review pages of Amazon and Goodreads. People seem to look out on the same universe. However, there’s a clue to the reality of multiple dimensions in the fact that good books in one universe are bad in another. Mostly Harmless takes – for me at least – a thrilling trip through alternative universes.

Mostly Harmless begins and ends with the story of some interstellar explorers called the Grebulons. A meteorite damages their ship, resulting in the loss of all stored memories. The crew know they set out to monitor something, but have no idea what. By chance, they end up on a planet in the outer reaches of Earth’s solar system monitoring the only material they can find to monitor – TV shows beaming out from Earth. Cagney and Lacey and M*A*S*H seem to be particular favourites. The Grebulons’ situation contrasts with that of the Vogons who hove into view as the book comes to its conclusion. The Vogons know exactly what their purpose in life is. If you compare the clear, small-minded and unpleasant purpose of the Vogons, with the benign TV watching aimlessness of memory-deprived Grebulons, things look different vis-a-vis the aimless TV viewing. The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have said. It’s like there’s an alternative universe where casual TV watching is a deeply meaningful activity, as is reading books that some people think are not very good.

I send this message from my universe to yours – Mostly Harmless is a great book.

Cop Movie Meets George Orwell’s 1984


2017 saw the publication of the 25th Anniversary edition of Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I managed to catch up with a few weeks ago.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Fatherland imagines what would have happened to history if Germany had won the Second World War.

The story itself has a plot borrowed from Hollywood, starring a talented, world-weary cop who drinks, smokes and works all the time. Naturally his personal life is a mess. American cop movies rely on this kind of ambivalent central character. The law cannot be represented by a monolithic institution imposing justice. In America that would send the wrong message. Instead law has to show itself via a maverick individual, who opposes institutional incompetence or corruption. That idea has been flogged to death in America, where perhaps the idea of the maverick individual has become too powerful for its own good. But in a world where Germany won the war, such a character is perfect in portraying a struggle against an all-encompassing nightmare of institutional corruption. It’s like John McLean of Die Hard finding himself out of his jurisdiction, not in Los Angeles but in the London of George Orwell’s 1984.

Fatherland has interesting things to say about the way people shape history, creating their own alternative narratives. That said, I did find the plot laboured at times, and on occasion the cop cliches came over as, well, cliches, rather than clever commentaries on the difference between a totalitarian and a tolerant society. This was Robert Harris’ first novel, and I agree with his observation in the introduction that he went on to write better ones. Nevertheless, the quality of ideas driving those later novels is also evident here


A History of Christmas


“Snow” at the Dickens Fesitval, Rochester

Many ancient mid-winter celebrations have strong parallels with what we now know as Christmas. Echoes remain of new year celebrations in Babylon and Egypt, mid-winter and new year holidays of the Roman Empire, and Yule celebrations of northern Germanic tribes. These celebrations represented an effort to promote fertility and bring back the sun. Food and drink were common features, and usually derived from sacrificial rites. There were rituals involving fire, lights and evergreen trees. The period from late November until the beginning of January was marked with various holidays. Some people think that modern Christmases start too early, but there is a long history of mid-winter festivals beginning in November.

Temple of Saturn

The Temple of Saturn in Rome

There are three festivals which are particularly linked with Christmas – Saturnalia, which in the later Roman Empire began on 17th December and continued to the 24th; the Kalends on 1st January; and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 25th. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun was important to Mithraism, Christianity’s main rival for the hearts and minds of Europeans in the third and fourth centuries. Both Saturnalia and Kalends required the decoration of buildings with lights and sprigs taken from evergreen trees. People exchanged presents and greetings. When the Roman poet Lucian expressed the spirit of Saturnalia, he could be talking about aspects of Christmas today:

“All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight… All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another… No discourage shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, according to mirth and jollity” (quoted in The Englishman’s Christmas by J.A.R Pimlott, P3).

There is little doubt that the mid-winter holiday was deliberately chosen by early Christians as the time for a nativity feast. The idea was to assimilate pagan traditions into Christianity rather than attempting the hopeless task of suppressing them.  The 25th was probably chosen because this was Mithraism’s day of celebration, the idea being to steal the thunder of a rival.

Written evidence of the Christian attempt to assimilate winter festivals actually exists in the history of the English Christmas. Augustine, the Pope’s emissary had arrived in Britain in 597. Soon afterwards he received instructions from Gregory the Great which described how Anglo Saxon mid-winter festivals should be Christianised:

“Because they are accustomed to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in place of this… they may make bowers of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but for the praise of God kill animals for their own eating…” (Quoted Pimlott, P6)


St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Christian influence, however, remained superficial until the time of the Norman Conquest. Rites included yule logs, use of evergreens, eating, drinking, and games such as leap frog and blind man’s buff, two recreations which actually originated in ancient fertility customs.  The Chuch made a concerted attempt to move in on Christmas at a conference of the Catholic Church at Tours in 567.  This council designated the Twelve Days of Christmas as the period between the Nativity and Epiphany.  By the 870s, Alfred The Great was insisting that during the Twelve Days, people refrain from carrying out any business.  By 1066 the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days were the main annual holiday. Scribes of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles had referred to Christmas by name for the first time in 1043, using this term rather than the more usual Mid-winter Mass, or Nativity.

The shape of Christmas was now set until the seventeenth century. It was a time of eating, drinking, good cheer, all taking place against a Christian backdrop. The Christmas story had grown out of nativity plays staged at many churches, most notably the Abbey of St Martial at Limoges in France. There were generally two plays in the Christmas repertoire, one about shepherds, the other involving wise men. These plays merged and some details about Herod and the slaughter of innocents were later added for dramatic effect. Carols derived from singing rites of the mid-winter celebrations. These festive songs were originally condemned by the Church but, as with other pagan Christmas rituals, assimilation was more effective than suppression. Present giving and eating of turkey at Christmas dinner became popular in Tudor times. The turkey had been imported from America by the Spaniards. An exotic and expensive meat, turkey became popular with the upper classes. The rest of society then followed on. Much of the Christmas food tradition we continue today originated in Tudor England.



Public notice in Boston, Lincolnshire, declaring Christmas illegal

Then in the seventeenth century came a festive social earthquake.   Christmas was banned by government decree for about fifteen years. As the puritans won power, Christmas came under increasing pressure. During the Civil War, Parliament needed Scottish support against royalist forces. Part of the price for this support was bowing to demands from Scottish presbyterians that Christmas be stopped. The presbyterians didn’t like all the fun and games, and they also thought that Christmas had Catholic overtones. For some reason their anti-Catholic ire was focused on mince pies! Once royal control had been defeated, legislation was passed banning Christmas in 1644, although it was widely disregarded. Another big effort was made to stop Christmas in 1647. There were riots and general unrest in many parts of the country. The worst disturbances took place in Canterbury on Christmas Day 1647, when protestors took control of the entire city. This was an early manifestation of the major insurrection in Kent in 1648, which actually became part of a second phase of the English Civil War. Cromwell put this last gasp resistance down, and from then on Christmas went into hiding for over ten years. Ironically it was the religious observance of Christmas which was the easiest to suppress. Mark Stoyle has written: “Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. It is ironic, to say the least, that while the godly had failed to suppress the secular Yuletide festivities which had vexed them for so long, they had succeeded in ending the religious observance of Christmas! (No Christmas Under Cromwell in BBC History Magazine December 2011). Christmas only returned when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.


Re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, during the Second Civil War, precipitated partly by the banning of Christmas

Christmas reformed as a family celebration and remained popular until the early nineteenth century. At this time Christmas began to decline again, designated holidays becoming fewer and fewer until only Christmas Day itself was left. The revival of Christmas coincided with the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843, and the enthusiasm that Prince Consort, Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had for Christmas. He followed the German tradition of erecting a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1840. In subsequent years the rest of Britain began to follow suit. Holidays started to expand again, and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 stipulated that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were to be taken as a holiday. Christmas was resurrected as a time of giving and remembering your fellow man.


Ghost of Christmas Future at the Dickens Festival

Today Christmas is a popular but ambiguous festival. It used to be the case that many would bemoan the lack of religious feeling in Christmas, attacking commercialisation, eating and drinking, and the general lack of substance, even though some of these aspects of Christmas represent its most ancient features. In recent years worries have emerged that Christmas might actually be too religious, in a specifically Christian sense, serving to alienate other faiths. Christmas was originally a tool for the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions, and in this sense Christmas has long been part of a religious struggle. Indeed any and all major celebrations of whatever kind could be seen as a threat to general social cohesion if other parts of the population do not join in.

The ultimately reassuring thing is that midwinter festivals show remarkable similarities in different parts of the world and in different cultures. The midwinter celebration is a way of banishing the cold and hoping for the light, in whatever form you feel it might come.  Happy Christmas.

Reading the World’s Oldest Book

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2100 BC, tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, who, demented with grief following the death of a friend, goes on a journey in search of eternal life.

Andrew George, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, describes how The Epic of Gilgamesh takes us back to the earliest days of writing, which emerged around 3000BC in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. Humanity’s first cities developed here, writing evolving when the work of administering these increasingly sophisticated societies became too much for human memory to cope with. Scribes then used the resulting cuneiform script to record The Epic of Gilgamesh on stone tablets. This is a truly ancient story, the starting place of literature. The Bible, which in parts clearly owes much to The Epic of Gilgamesh is, by comparison, a recent and somewhat derivative publication.

People designed writing to record life. It is fitting they should use it to tell a story about a man trying to hold onto his life. To read what remains of their efforts thousands of years later is a moving experience. The text is fragmented in places, where time has eaten away at the stone manuscripts. This most revered of stories, stored in ancient libraries ordered by futile royal decree to endure forever, comes to me in shards, partially pieced together. And yet survive it did, writing fulfilling its function to help us hold onto life.

Writing is the defining quality of Gilgamesh’s complex society, a means for people to aspire to a new kind of immortality for their thoughts. There is certainly danger in this development, a sense of vertigo. The friend whose loss caused Gilgamesh so much pain was a man who was the antithesis of the sophisticated city dweller – a man raised by animals. This man, endowed with a sense of natural justice, taught Gilgamesh valuable lessons. This was the kind of instinctive existence that life in the cities with its writing and learning had left behind. Gilgamesh mourns the passing of his friend. He mourns both the loss of the individual and, more symbolically, the natural life he represented. Gilgamesh tries to find a way to escape his own death and the passing of the old life of humanity. While his efforts are frustrated, humanity’s new society ironically seems to offers new ways to preserve experience and guard against loss.

Writing has a resilience that outlasts buildings, walls and statues. The story of Gilgamesh remains for us to read today.

“He came a far road, was weary, found peace, and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.”

John Lennon – What’s On The Other Side Of The Zebra Crossing?


I am not a natural idoliser.  Emotionally, the whole thing is uncomfortable.  Rationally, knowing what people are like, the perfection required is unrealistic.  It was in the case of John Lennon that I came closest to idolising someone. I decided to find out more about him, thinking this would take me closer to the magical quality in his songs.  I read biographies and visited Beatles’ places in Liverpool and London.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the person I discovered was not the one I expected. Saintly icons are not likely to write good songs.

Here, then, is my journey through disappointment, towards a more grown up kind of appreciation of what might lie at the other end of the zebra crossing.

John Lennon did not start out in life with any apparent promise to greatness. He was born in Liverpool’s Maternity Hospital, Oxford Street, on the evening of 9th October 1940 during an air raid. Early family life was turbulent. Albert Goldman, in his biography The Lives of John Lennon, makes much of these difficulties. But Philip Norman in John Lennon The Life argues for a much more ordinary picture. While John’s parents could hardly be described as enjoying a stable relationship, Norman presents John as enjoying the benefits of an extended family. He was in the pleasant position of having a number of secure homes to go to, that of his loveable but flighty mother Julia, or the well organised household of his Aunt Mimi. He could also wander off to Aunt Harrie’s if he wanted to.

John had an unremarkable school career. Goldman tries to tell a Tennessee Williams tale of violence and bullying, but once again the reality was probably more mundane. Philip Norman does not portray the Lennon school days as particularly troubled. Comedian Jimmy Tarbuck who was at school with John remembers he used to get into fights, though not with Tarbuck, who at that time was a terrifying Teddy Boy. John stuck to small-time fighting, and games of Cowboys and Indians with his best friend Pete Shotton. He did enough work to pass his Eleven Plus exam, starting at Quarry Bank Grammar School in the top stream, before slipping to the bottom. With Pete Shotten in tow there was much mischief, playing truant, shop lifting, and the running of a dinner ticket scam after accidentally finding thousands of tickets in a school bin. In his room at Aunt Mimi’s house, John would read Just William books and listen to music. Mimi grew tired of having “Elvis for breakfast, lunch and tea”.


Mendips – Aunt Mimi’s House

Although Elvis seemed like a distant god, the music that the young enjoyed in the 1950s was unusually accessible, even to boys in the bottom stream at Liverpool grammar schools. By the mid 1950s, skiffle had became a major youth craze. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: “Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap – just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar.” The musical structures were equally simple. Skiffle used the traditional twelve bar blues pattern of four chords, which in their simplest version could be played with only two fingers on a guitar. They could be learned very quickly. Julia – a banjo player – provided £10 to purchase John a mail order guitar, and gave him lessons. In March 1957 John Lennon formed his first band, originally called the Black Jacks, soon changed to the Quarry Men because most band members went to Quarry Bank School.

In October 1957, after failing all his “O” Level exams, John managed, on his headmaster’s recommendation, to get into Liverpool College of Art in Hope Street. Here he took a lackadaisical attitude to his studies, became good friends with the college’s most promising student, Stuart Sutcliffe, chased after girls, drank Black Velvets at lunchtime in Ye Cracke in Rice Street, and continued playing with the Quarry Men. Earlier that summer, on 6th July 1957, a promising guitarist and singer named Paul McCartney had seen the Quarry Men playing at St Peter’s Church garden fete in Woolton. Paul met John, played a few tunes, and proved that he was a good musician, better in fact than John. Once in the band, Paul started talking about his friend George Harrison, who after some grumbling about his young age was also asked to join. Knowing what happened later, it might seem that this was the start of something big. But it wasn’t. John’s life was traumatically disrupted in July 1958 when Julia was killed in a car accident on Menlove Avenue near Aunt Mimi’s house. The Quarry Men broke up early in 1959 after a disastrous gig where the boys all got drunk. From the original band, only John, Paul and George stayed together, with John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe attempting to play bass, even though he had little musical talent. The future Beatles were four guitar players – one of which could hardly play – with no drummer and few prospects.

John lasted two years at art college before music became his livelihood. Always struggling to find drummers, his band played on the Liverpool dance hall circuit, and famously at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Although John was moving on now from skiffle, the Liverpool dance hall scene continued the feeling of a rough and ready music for all. In other parts of the country Mecca and Rank ran dance halls on authoritarian lines, displaying signs with messages such as “No Jiving”. In Liverpool most people couldn’t afford these places, so local events were organised instead. These ranged from the family fun of village fetes, such as the one at Woolton where John met Paul, to altogether tougher affairs. During one riotous gig Stuart Sutcliffe was attacked and – in spite of John’s desperate efforts to defend him – sustained a head injury which may later have led to a fatal haemorrhage.


Mathew Street

Attacks on his friend aside, it seemed that most of the time there was nothing John liked better than an evening in front of, or fighting amidst, a violent audience. One of their drummers, Tommy Moore, eventually left the group, now calling itself the Beatles, disenchanted with John’s obvious relish for crowd trouble. Pete Best took over on drums, just in time for an engagement in Hamburg in August 1960. Rock n’ roll impresario Bruno Koschmider, hired a number of Liverpool bands, including the Beatles, to play in Hamburg. Playing for a tough crowd the Beatles adapted accordingly. At times things got out of hand, particularly during an embarrassing attempt to mug a drunk sailor. Although Paul and George lost their nerve, John and Pete Best carried on with the attack, only to get beaten off by their intended victim. This might not have been the only trouble John got into. Even the most sympathetic biographers admit that John could be violent when drunk. Stuart Sutcliffe’s younger sister Pauline, in her 1984 memoir, The Beatles Shadow, even suggested that the head injury which killed her brother in April 1962 was sustained not in Liverpool but in Hamburg, during a fight with John – though no one else corroborates this. Whatever the truth of the Hamburg period, it seems clear the Beatles became a willing part of their harsh environment.

This was all to change, however.  During 1962 record producer George Martin of EMI was looking for an act to package as his own Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The Beatles got the call during a stint in Hamburg, offering a recording session at EMI. This session went fairly well, Martin thinking that he might be able to do something with the Beatles. Pete Best, for some reason, wasn’t considered right for the emerging band. He was sacked and the job of drummer given to Richard Starkey, known as Ringo Starr, who had played with Liverpool band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

The Beatles in their final line up of John, Paul, George and Ringo, quickly won a wide audience. At the elitist end there was The Times classical music critic William Mann, who wrote that Lennon and McCartney “were the outstanding English composers of 1963”. Mann talked impressively of “major tonic sevenths and ninths, flat submedial key switches, and the concluding Aeolian cadence in Not A Second Time which had the same chord progression as Mahler’s Song of the Earth”. On the other hand there was a huge general audience for the Beatles. Fittingly for a band with such a wide appeal, Lennon and McCartney were typically finding poetry in ordinary things. First it was boy girl relationships, with Love Me Do in October 1962, and Please Please Me in February 1963. Then in a massive rush of creativity anything from trips to the Isle of Wight (Ticket to Ride 1965), memories of friends and places in Liverpool (In My Life, 1965), pine cladding (Norwegian Wood 1965), sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping 1966) and visits to the doctor (Doctor Robert 1966) became the source of classic songs.

John was now a star. After years of struggling to reach “the topper-most of the popper-most” he had made it. Once the initial thrill had worn off, however, he found himself spending his days trapped in hotel rooms. Between exhausting tours there were periods of recovery at a suburban home in Weybridge, Surrey, where he kept his wife Cynthia – who he met at art school – hidden away because she was bad for the Beatles pin-up image. Then in March 1966 the dream music career took a dangerous turn, when John gave an interview to journalist Maureen Cleave, carelessly remarking that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This interview was initially little noticed, until in July 1966 it was published in the American teen magazine Date Book. In the more fundamentalist environment of America there was a huge uproar, which coincided with an American tour. Amidst death threats, the Beatles could no longer sell out their stadium venues. The sound of fire crackers at a show in Memphis had all the Beatles turning to John expecting to see him drop dead. This tour finished at Candlestick Stadium in San Francisco on 29th August 1966, marking the end of the Beatles as a live act.

After the break up of his marriage to long-suffering Cynthia, the start of a relationship with artist Yoko Ono, and two hugely creative albums – the Sergeant Pepper and White Albums – John’s journey reached a kind of culmination in 1969. This apotheosis came not on world tours, or at the mountain retreats of Indian gurus, but on a zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios. On the Abbey Road album’s famous sleeve picture, the Beatles are crossing to the other side. Aware that the group was coming to the end of the road, there are allusions in the sleeve picture to death – Ringo’s undertaker’s outfit, Paul’s bare feet, John’s angelic white suit, with George perhaps as the grave digger in his jeans. These are all references to the kind of unfathomable, final, irrevocable journey that occurs at the end of a life: but in this case the journey is happening on a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood, London. Perhaps the picture is suggesting that all crossings over, no matter how major they might appear to be, are in fact like walking over a zebra crossing. As John said in 1968’s Across The Universe: “Nothing’s going to change my world.” These words are frustrating and reassuring in equal measure. Crossing at the Abbey Road zebra crossing was the best kind of ordinary everyday trip to the other side.


John married Yoko in March 1969 just before the Beatles finally broke up in 1970. He then started a new career as a solo artist, and peace campaigner. Much of John Lennon’s later saintly image comes from the peace campaigner phase, though as Ray Connolly points out, this ignores some less than peaceful decisions, such as giving financial help to the Irish Republican movement in the US at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. How that promotes peace I can’t really fathom. But in his song Imagine, written in 1970, John left the imperfection of his life behind and found one of those moments of balance that only great works of art provide. He explored the contradictions of peace through the word imagine, a word which suggests both peace and restlessness in equal measure.


In June 1973 the Lennons took up residence across the Atlantic in the Dakota Building, New York. Most of 1974 was spent away from Yoko in Los Angeles, living with Yoko’s secretary May Pang, whilst trying to make an album with Phil Spector. This chaotic time of drinking, partying and drug taking is often referred to as the Lost Weekend. Following the Lost Weekend John lived quietly at the Dakota with Yoko and their son Sean. He emerged in 1980 and went on a five month sailing trip to Bermuda. This adventurous holiday seemed to re-ignite a desire for song writing. Returning to New York he made the Double Fantasy album with Yoko, released on 17th November 1980. The following month, on the evening of 8th December, a disturbed former Beatles fan shot John at the entrance to the Dakota building as he was returning from a day of recording in the studio. His death was greeted with worldwide grief, confirming an iconic status. John himself, however, would not have wanted to be remembered as a god, but as someone who walked across Abbey Road.

I suppose this sums up my journey of discovery about John Lennon – a journey across a zebra crossing, not finding what I expected to find on the other side, but learning to appreciate it.


Best album titles. This week – Help!

Cry for assistance, promise of assistance, and title of the Beatles’ fifth album, released in August 1965.

The title track explores the paradoxes that hide in the idea of help. In this song, someone has suffered problems which result in a loss of confidence. Their independence “seems to vanish in the haze”. But if the problem is a loss of independence and confidence, isn’t it possible that help might make the problem worse?

The word help itself also holds contradictions. It can be both a noun and a verb. Help, as a noun, is a thing with a substantial reality. You can offer help in the same way that you can offer someone a chair or a bowl of soup. As a verb, however, help has no such certainty. It could be all good intentions and unpredictable outcomes.

There is a lot of history reflected in the complexities of the word help. There’s all that political struggle between, for example, 1960s prime ministers Mr Wilson and Mr Heath. There are those who want to offer help, and those who think that help might damage our ability to look after ourselves. The contradictions in the word we use to describe assistance, suggest that neither side is wholly right or wrong. The arguments will go on forever.

While they all argue, we can listen to Help! It might seem difficult to see how we can get real help listening to an album. It’s not like someone is going to jump out of the music and provide a cup of tea, or love or money, or whatever it is we might need. Yet the record tells us that real assistance can emerge in unexpected ways.