The Kindly Ones By Anthony Powell – The Dark Depths Of The Superficial

The Kindly Ones – book six in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence – begins around 1914, with an extended description of Nick’s boyhood in an isolated hilltop bungalow near Aldershot. His home-tutor tries to teach Nick a few facts about Greek mythology.

At lessons that morning – the subject classical mythology – Miss Orchard had spoken of the manner in which the Greeks, because they so greatly feared the Furies, had named them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones – flattery intended to appease their terrible wrath.

While young Nick Jenkins has lessons with Miss Orchard, his family have minor crises. Mr Jenkins endures hassles related to his army career. He has to prepare the house for a visit from his friend, General Conyers. The maid is in love with the cook, but the cook doesn’t love her back. There are embarrassments related to a neighbour who, having set himself up as a guru, takes his followers on runs through the hills near the Jenkins’ house. These problems are generally blown out of proportion by Mr Jenkins, the sense of over-reaction strengthened by the approach of a problem called World War One. Then we jump forward to Nick’s life in the late 1930s, when he has established a desultory career as a book reviewer and not very famous author. This time of personal trials – awkward parties, the death of a difficult uncle whose paltry affairs it falls to Nick to put in order – is once again overshadowed by the threat of war, World War Two this time.

As always, the charm of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time books lies in the easy-going nature of Nick’s narrative – the way he deflates pretensions, whether displayed by pompous school friends, international business tycoons with odd relationship tastes, womanising stockbrokers, or gurus leading his people to enlightenment in the hills above Aldershot. Even war has its pomposity punctured when, through the eyes of young Nick, a possible German invasion is viewed as something like “a visit to the dentist or ultimately going to school.”

And yet it is quite clear that war is not really like going to school or the dentist. Young Nick is to learn that many of the fathers of children he plays with will become casualties. It’s also the case that the minor problems which Nick contrasts with the looming threat of war, are themselves not as minor as they seem. There is undoubted pain in some of the small, household dramas described in the first part of The Kindly Ones. The maid, Billson loves the cook, Alfred. When Alfred decides to marry a woman from Bristol, Billson has a breakdown. She appears naked in the living room, and has to be shepherded away by General Conyers. The story of Billson is a kind of family joke, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a story of real pain. Especially so in the strait-laced social context of the time, a person appearing naked in a drawing room on a formal occasion when guests are being entertained, would represent a most terrible sort of collapse. In both the big and small events of life, Furies appear disguised as Kindly Ones.

In the early months of World War Two, nothing much seems to happen. Nick finds it hard to concentrate on writing. He does his best to pull strings to get into the Army, because it is the done thing. There is nothing as dramatic and painful as Billson’s collapse. Conversation typically combines such diverse topics as marriage problems, the welfare of displaced cats and the threat of air raids. Big and small things are balanced together with skill and sensitivity. The book has a kindly voice, which hints at darker depths, and also lifts a reader out of them. If you are living through ordinary times and want to read about Earth-shattering events, The Kindly Ones has something for you. If you are living through significant events and want some light-hearted relief, The Kindly Ones has something for you. And finally, if you are enduring apparently ordinary times which have their own hidden stress and drama, which no one acknowledges, then The Kindly Ones has something for you.

Interview With Martin

This is part of an interview I did recently with the author and writing coach Lorraine Mace.

Tell me something about yourself your readers might not know?

I am a trained sports massage therapist. This was the answer I gave to the same question, asked at an interview for a Christmas job at Argos. It seemed to work quite well on that occasion. They offered me the job.

Do you Google yourself? What did you find that affected you most (good or bad)?

I don’t Google myself, always assuming there’s nothing there. Let’s have a go now… This is fun. Graham Norton does this sort of thing with his guests. Well, Jones is a common name so there are lots of Martin Joneses. My blog is listed, along with entries for a number of other Martin Jones authors, who seem to be doing very well with their writing. There’s an archaeologist who has written ninety seven books, his latest about why humans share food. What have I been doing with my time? And there’s someone who writes horror stories. So not much to see with regard to me personally.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Reading, obviously. I have this scheme which alternates classic novel with new novel. Music has always been a passion. Cycling the byways of Kent is my favourite form of exercise.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Hmmm. Interesting. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned was the way confidence can exist alongside an equally profound level of doubt. Within candy floss clouds of diffidence, there is a small rock of determination – not so much a rock as a chunk of neutron star. It’s odd how these opposites can exist so naturally together.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

At primary school it was astronaut, fireman, and very briefly glazier, after a man came to fix our school window and seemed happy in his work. I thought about being a musician for a while – making some pocket money in my sixth form years playing the French horn in show bands. But writing ambitions always lurked, and had completely taken over by the time I finished school.

Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – Writing A Novel About Life Is Like Writing A Review About A Novel

When you come to review a book, it’s always a matter of choosing some aspect to focus on – themes, writing style, historical context, number of laughs, or whatever it might be. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant reminds me of writing a review. Author, Anthony Powell looks at his life experience, trying to sum it up in a few hundred pages, which is a bit like a reviewer trying to sum up a novel in a few paragraphs.

In this book, there is an overlap in time with earlier volumes of Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. We start in the aftermath of World War Two, a bombed-out pub evoking memories of people our narrator Nick Jenkins had once met there. Using the pub as a stepping off point, we go back to the 1930s and see aspects of Nick’s life which had been invisible in earlier accounts of this period. He picks up on a different set of details, a different life almost, amongst musical friends we weren’t aware of before.

By looking at a period in his life again, Nick explores familiar themes of finding retrospective patterns. But this account of different events in a story we thought we already knew, suggests the indefinable nature of life’s patterns. The patterns found today might be different to those discovered tomorrow.

The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life. The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night.

As usual with this series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is very funny in an understated way. This instalment also had rather more drama and tragedy than usual, all of which we missed the last time.

That’s my review. I could write a different one next week, but this is my best effort for now.

Do Stories Help Us Make The Right Decisions?

Writing has long been speculative, concerning itself with what might happen, imagining future possibilities, weighing up decisions and consequences. 5th century BC playwright, Euripides, wrote a kind of alternative history in his play Medea. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes a young man agonising over different options and how they might play out.

In some ways it is clear that life only gives us one chance to make a decision, hence Hamlet’s paralysing desire to make the right one. This is an important topic, because potentially if you make the wrong call, you might end up with something like, oh I don’t know, World War Two. In the 1930s, the British government decided against taking military action to suppress Hitler’s growing power. Condemning this decision became an accepted part of history. Anthony Eden, who was foreign secretary in the 1930s, became prime minister in 1955. An overwhelming desire to rewrite the past drove him into the Suez Crisis of 1956, where he tried to take what he saw as preemptive action against a budding dictator – in this case, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The military operation against Nasser was a disaster, which made Britain look like a bully of smaller nations. Tony Blair made the same mistake for the same reasons when he agreed to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Heraclitus said – you can never step into the same river twice. There is only one chance to make a choice. Suez in the 1950s and Iraq in the 2000s were different rivers to Germany in the 1930s.

So given these high stakes, perhaps a story serves to help us imagine what might happen in the future, given a certain set of present circumstances – so that when the time comes we have a better chance of doing the right thing. Margaret Attwood defines speculative fiction as writing that deals with possibilities in a society that have not been enacted but are latent. Perhaps a story like The Handmaid’s Tale – and others like Nineteen Eighty Four, or Fahrenheit 451 – help us avoid dark possibilities by imagining them ahead of time. In this sense, stories can sometimes serve as a kind of early warning system. People ask where writers get their ideas. One source would be a pile of rubbish somewhere, which might catch fire in the future. A story about this potential fire, could persuade us to do some house-keeping, averting disaster before it happens.

On the other hand it is difficult to really view stories as imaginative briefing scenarios for politicians, military planners, civil servants, or fire chiefs. After all, Hamlet is not a morality tale about making the right decision. It’s more about the paralysis that comes when we fret too much about making the right decision. Many stories show that different outcomes, better in some ways, worse in others, are no more correct overall. Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is a recent story of this type. Going back to history, who knows what might have happened if the British government had actually decided to take action against Hitler in the 1930s. Britain’s armed forces were under strength at that time and public opinion was firmly against war. Any attempted military operation could have turned into a kind of Suez disaster, serving only to hand Hitler a propaganda advantage. In that scenario, pre-war prime minister Neville Chamberlain would now be known for his reckless use of force rather than for his support for appeasement.

With this in mind it is undeniable that while stories can serve as early warning systems, the quiet, meditative business of reading often shows us that decisions are not as decisive as they seem. I mentioned Heraclitus earlier, that 5th century BC Greek philosopher who said you can never step into the same river twice. There was another philosopher around at about the same time, who felt differently. His name was Parmenides. Rather than seeing the world in terms of constant change, Parmenides saw it as timeless and uniform. He thought it didn’t really matter what decision you made, because nothing really ever changed. Much storytelling reflects this view – The Midnight Library, we have already mentioned. Honourable mention could also go to Groundhog Day, about weatherman Phil Connors, who is condemned to live the same day over and over again. He can only escape by accepting his situation, learning to make changes to his routine, which eventually make his day a good one. Phil has endless chances to try again because essentially his day is always the same.

So stories are often about vital decisions – about what might happen if we make the wrong ones – but other stories show us that choice is more mysterious. Stories help us ask questions about the future, but also help us relax and accept whatever happens – as Parmenides said, whatever is is and what is not cannot be.

At Lady Molly’s By Anthony Powell – A Novel Approach To Psychology

At Lady Molly’s is the fourth volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time. Nick Jenkins’ account of his life amongst London’s smart set has reached the mid-1930s. By now even the most unlikely candidates for marriage – Nick himself, and his awkward friend Kenneth Widermerpool – are contemplating settling down.

Mildred Haycock, Widermerpool’s intended, is the sister of Bertha Conyers, wife of General Aylmer Conyers, old friends of Nick’s family. This family is a tangled, extended thing, a sprawling mass of relations, friends, and friends who are distant relations. For the sake of argument, the title of this book puts Lady Molly at the centre – former mistress of Dogdene House during her first marriage. Everything in the book hangs together like this kaleidoscope of family, friends, and acquaintances. There is a pattern which is difficult to hold onto. This is also true of the psychology of the many characters.

Take General Conyers for example. He spends his retirement breeding poodles to work as gun dogs and pursuing an amateur interest in psychology. Often his insights into personality types seem perceptive. On the other hand, his psychological categories don’t seem to do justice to quirky individuals – tellingly that interest in breeding poodle gun dogs is an exercise in mixing up categories.

You could say that At Lady Molly’s tends to be superficial in its approach, like General Conyer’s retirement psychology. But somehow, the unassuming reflections of Nick, our narrator, catch perfectly that important element of subjectivity in human behaviour, the way people shape experience according to their own superficial whims, likes and dislikes. Nick’s laid-back reflections do gain a kind of depth, which a more objective psychological text book, or personality study, would lack. This is a perfect example of what a novel has to offer in looking at life.

As with the previous books in the series, I loved At Lady Molly’s. It’s an easy-going account of other people’s lives, which amidst its entertaining soap opera fun and sly humour, has something insightful to say about how people view the world

I’ve Written This Review For Your Own Good

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing is a thriller set in an expensive American private school, hot-housing the children of wealthy parents for admission to top universities.

Many of its characters follow the philosophy of the title, acting towards others in a way that might seem harsh in the short term, only because there is promise of long term gain. This could be as straightforward as a teacher pushing a student to work hard at school to improve their job prospects in adult life. But much more bizarre scenarios then develop, where the present pain increases and long term gain is harder to fathom. It’s like the religious idea that you suffer here on Earth to prepare you for a better life in the hereafter, when it is often difficult to see how the suffering is actually helping. This parallel is clear in the character of Teddy Crutcher, a quietly insane English teacher. Crutcher deals out arbitrary retribution to students – and fellow teachers – who he feels would benefit from a few life lessons. One of his gentler bits of educational suffering involves giving his class the job of reading Danté’s The Divine Comedy, a decision which student Zach Ward reflects bitterly upon…

The Divine Comedy? A punishment – Zach knows that. Or maybe a judgment, given how much he hates everyone. ‘I have allotted four weeks in total for The Divine Comedy,’ Crutcher says. ‘Which means you should finish the first book, Inferno, by next week. Pay particular attention to who ends up in each ring of hell and why. Hypocrites, for example. Or thieves.’ Maybe that’s it, Zach realizes. Maybe Crutcher thinks of himself as a god, and it’s his job to punish people.

The story is told through the eyes of many characters, both amongst teaching staff and students. Each person is trying to see the complete picture. Some are even trying to control the complete picture. But nobody has this omniscience, not Teddy Crutcher, not his persecuted student Zach Ward, or the evangelical maths teacher Frank Maxwell; not even the reader, who sees bits and pieces as the story unfolds. What is the big plan? If we are suffering, what is the reason behind it?A thriller is a good place to deal with such questions, since thrillers rely on doubt as much as revelation to keep you reading. They show that not knowing the plan can be as compelling as finding answers.

I thought this was an excellent novel. There’s a light and humorous tone, despite the murderous subject matter. The many points of view were well handled. And it has this interesting theme about people going through trials for some greater good, which is both a delusion and a kind of bizarre reality.

Malibu Rising – The Story of An Ordinary Paradise

Malibu Rising is the story of hugely successful singing star, Mick Riva, and the family he abandons. Following the death of their mother, oldest sister, Nina, steps in and looks after her siblings. We follow Riva family history, from 1956 when hopeful singer Mick, meets a pretty girl called June on a Malibu beach, through to a fateful night in 1983 when the now adult Riva siblings throw a chaotic party in Nina’s Malibu house.

Malibu Rising is about family patterns playing out from one generation to another – and efforts, usually self-defeating, that people make to escape those patterns. This theme is handled with some subtlety. There is also reflection on the idea that ambitions aspiring to supposedly perfect lives, often just recreate flashier versions of former, ordinary lives. I enjoyed the descriptions of Malibu in this regard. Malibu has a reputation as a paradise for millionaires. It is actually a place to live like any other, where it pays to have comprehensive home insurance against natural disaster.

More difficult is the way the story is told. There is no central narrator. We see things from multiple points of view. Once the party starts in the book’s second half, virtually everyone coming in the door gets their few paragraphs. This was confusing and made it difficult to stay engaged. Sometimes we also get a strange author voice butting in, saying things like “there were twenty five people in the living room, not that anyone was counting”.

I didn’t know what to make of this. Was the author reflecting on how each individual is an author of their own story, while a bigger, fateful author appears to push the plot in its own direction? Well maybe. I think this book does have literary ambitions, even if it as written as a kind of soap opera. But the point of view thing was still potentially confusing and did not help involvement with the story.

Overall Malibu Rising was an interesting novel thematically, though perhaps not the most engaging read.

Houston in the blind, permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity

I recently watched Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity, which tells the story of a couple of astronauts who become trapped in Earth orbit. Space debris destroys their shuttle, along with satellites which allow communication with Earth. Now they have to try and survive. Part of this effort involves continuing to talk to Mission Control in Houston, as though messages are still getting through. The routine is to address each message to ‘Houston in the blind’.

“They can’t hear us,” says inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.

“We don’t know that,” replies veteran Matt Kowalski. “That’s why you keep talking. If someone is listening they just might save your life.”

Gravity is an interesting film on many levels, not least in what it has to say to writers. When you are a writer starting out, no one is listening. Maybe no one will ever respond. Somehow you have to keep talking to Houston in the blind as if they are there.

We see the value of this approach during a particularly dire moment later in the film. Kowalski has been lost, and Ryan, after reaching a badly damaged International Space Station, finds herself trapped in an escape capsule with no fuel. At this moment Kowalski seems to return. He opens the capsule door, sits beside Ryan and provides some relaxed encouragement. Kowalski is a hallucination, but by talking to someone who isn’t there, Ryan manages to sort out her thoughts and find a way forward. The mirage of the conversation gives actual help. There are religious parallels. Ryan had considered prayer before Kowalski’s hallucination arrived – and prayer is once again a manner of communication where you are talking to Houston in the blind. That type of message will never be answered, but some people continue to gain actual comfort from the act of assuming their call gets through.

Point of view is also interesting. Sometimes we are in Ryan’s helmet, seeing out of her eyes. Then with a subtle movement we move outside, to view her story as observers. We are both Ryan and her audience, with her when she calls for help, but also in the position of someone receiving that call.

Writers are trying to communicate. Initially they only do this with themselves, using writing as a way to sort out personal thoughts, as Ryan did talking to the hallucination of her fellow astronaut. But even an illusory audience can provide actual help, and might turn into a real audience. If the message keeps going out with enough conviction, then you might find that Houston in the blind is receiving – as Ryan discovers at the end of the film. In a damaged capsule she reaches Earth and hears Houston telling her that they are sending a rescue mission.

So, taking Matt Kowalski’s advice…

“Houston in the blind, this is mission specialist Martin Jones. Permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity, with reference to writing… copy that.”

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy – A Story Of Magic Celebrating Science

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a kind of melancholic mashup of Night At The Museum and Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth century tale, The Snow Queen. A city museum is about to stage an exhibition of swords, but the museum is actually an alternative reality in disguise, a prison where a Snow Queen of centuries ago has imprisoned a boy who might have the power to end her reign. A curious young girl discovers the boy. She has to find a way to release him and help him in his quest.

I actually came across this book on a list of “STEM” titles, that is books which might help young readers in understanding and appreciating science and technology. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a conundrum. In many ways, it presents the usual misleading idea that science is all about limited pigeonholing, which prevents an appreciation of a wider, more magical reality. The story is similar to The Snow Queen in that sense. One of the main points Anderson makes is that modern rationality is apparently no match for Christianity.

However, The Snow Queen is a subtle tale, which in its criticism of rationality, also reveals how people can be misled by their imagination. The boy and girl in Anderson’s tale first come across the Snow Queen in a story which they mistakenly believe is real. The Snow Queen is herself a product of of viewing the world in an imaginative rather than rational way.

Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy has this same two-sided quality. Ophelia in her restless wandering around the museum discovers the Marvellous Boy, locked away by the Snow Queen. Ophelia finds him only because she is more curious and willing to look than other people. This is part of her nature as a budding young scientist. Another important aspect of science is the discipline needed to put aside preconceptions and prejudices and see what’s in front of you. Now here’s the tricky thing: Ophelia has to put aside her preconceptions, which in this case requires her to accept that there is a magical world hidden in a museum. To do this she must be a proper scientist, accepting what she sees, even if it doesn’t coincide with what she thinks she should be seeing. When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, the preconceptions of his time demanded that species were fixed and unchanging. Darwin had to accept the evidence of his eyes that species changed all the time. He had to set aside his old conception of reality and accept a new one, crazy as it seemed to be. Ophelia has to do exactly the same thing.

My initial feeling was that the portrayal of science in Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy was unnecessarily negative. But once I started to think about it, I wasn’t so sure. Why make the little girl into a scientist if you were just going to portray science in a negative light? In the end I came to the conclusion that author Karen Foxlee explores the contradictions of The Snow Queen in a modern setting. She has written a clever book which seems to be critical of modern science while also celebrating it. By a roundabout route, the nostalgic resurrection of a fairy story becomes a demonstration of that admirable discipline needed by brave scientists, who put aside what they are supposed to see, and see what is actually there.

Calculating A Good Story – The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty published in 2018.

This middle grade novel is about Lucy, a 12 year old girl who, when struck by lightning, develops an incredible ability in mathematics. After a period of home schooling, her grandmother/guardian decides that attending a regular school will help Lucy develop social skills.

I don’t think The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good middle grade novel, I think it’s a good novel, which just happens to have children as its characters. The categorisation of novel by age group started developing in earnest in the 1960s, so that today there’s a feeling that people have to read novels featuring characters who are like themselves. That’s alright, except for the fact that novels are also useful in finding out about people who are not like ourselves. I am not a 12 year old girl with social anxiety and incredible abilities in maths. I am a man in his fifties who has never felt much of an affinity with maths – but that doesn’t mean I can’t find The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl interesting.

One of the things that Lucy learns during her time at school is that although she might feel like the only freak in the world, other people have their own concerns and are not really taking much notice of you. That’s what books can provide – an insight into things other than us.

So maths – I have enough ability to muddle along, but have never been something very comfortable with it. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl was an education for me, a window into the world of maths. I was good at English at school, a subject which I believed was an altogether vaguer affair. But what did I know. Lucy loves the constant known as pi – a number which you get in dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter. This simple calculation comes out as a number that goes on forever, beginning 3.14159…. with as many numbers after that as you want. Pi is constant, applying to any circle of any size. But you can never say precisely what pi is, because you can never get to the end of it. There is something fundamentally dependable about Lucy’s favourite bit of maths, something that always remains the same. But there is also an unknowable quality about it. I imagined there was a big difference between the precise world of maths and the uncertainties of life which people write about in stories. That, however is not really true. Maths and more artistic pursuits are not so far apart after all.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good novel for school children. It will teach them about maths and show how it can be used to solve real world problems that might mean something to them – like boosting the chances of adoption of dogs at a dog shelter. There are also a few lessons about dealing with difficult social situations. Beyond that, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is, as I say, a good novel. It says something about life that is relevant generally.