Temporary Kings By Anthony Powell – Warning To An Age Where Everyone’s A Monarch For Fifteen Minutes

Temporary Kings is the penultimate novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence. We have followed Nick Jenkins through school days and young adulthood, into his early career as a writer. Temporary Kings opens with Nick having become a rather successful author, eminent enough to make up the numbers at a fancy writers’ conference in Venice. Success, however, has not gone to his head, the schedule of talks on such topics as the role of the writer in world government, holding little interest for him. Instead he prefers wandering about in the pleasant company of Dr Brightman, a very knowledgeable historian. She takes Nick to a Venetian mansion, to see a ceiling painting – Candaules and Gyges by Tiepolo. They both stare up at Greek king Candaules, secretly showing off his beautiful wife at bedtime to his friend Gyges, hiding behind a curtain. This painting sets the tone for the book, where voyeurism is a central theme.

Voyeurism is about having a special and unusual view into other people’s lives – a bit like reading a book really. Certainly, for Gyges, chief officer and friend of King Candaules, the opportunity of seeing a naked queen does not come along everyday. But Gyges also realises that the chance to see what is usually hidden, comes with danger attached, only reluctantly agreeing to the plan at the king’s insistence. As it turns out, Gyges was right to be worried. The queen spots the voyeur when he tries to slip away. Furious at her husband’s self-satisfied act of betrayal, she confronts Gyges and offers him two choices: he can either be executed, or he can marry her and murder Candaules, reigning in his place. There isn’t much choice but to accept the latter option, which makes the servant into a king he never wanted to be.

As I read on through the book, the danger in the painting did not seem to be confined to the musings of intellectuals in Venice. The more I read, the more relevant the book’s theme seemed to become. I couldn’t help thinking about the modern fascination with conspiracy, an outlook which has become especially destructive in recent years. A conspiracy theorist takes what they assume to be a privileged peek at a subject, which is a long way out of their normal remit – medicine perhaps, or the world of power politics. Their subsequent belief that they are seeing something most people do not, is a great boost to self-esteem. You might say this is the danger in the Candaules and Gyges painting – stealing a view which is not due to you, for reasons of egotism, which leads to great danger.

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nick Jenkins, as usual, does not claim profound insight. Typically his writing is humble in its approach, dealing with day to day events. Even as a well-known writer, he ignores those conference talks on the writer’s supposed role in world government. Temporary Kings is a meditation around the idea of accepting our limited view of the world, and using it to better appreciate how things really are. Nick ends his book walking through London watching an antique car rally go by. This might not seem like a dramatic denouement, but after witnessing the fate of characters such as Kenneth Widermerpool, and his scary wife Pamela, who were both voyeurs, perhaps we come to further appreciate the value of Nick’s more polite outlook.

Temporary Kings is funny, dramatic in a restrained kind of way, and intriguingly relevant to a modern situation where many people believe that after peeking into rarified worlds of knowledge via a few videos, they can be rulers of those worlds, seeing what the king sees. This book presents a more traditional sense that some views are privileged and should stay that way. In the typical moderate Nick Jenkins manner, you would need to be careful how far you took that point, which the book’s complexities allow for, but given present circumstances there is much we could take from Temporary Kings.

The Morning Show Season Two – The Show’s The Thing Wherein I’ll Catch The Conscience Of The King

There are spoilers in the following review. Please bear in mind before reading!

In my article on the first series of The Morning Show, I recalled a university tutor who taught me that Shakespeare never really said anything. “All you can do is maintain the paradoxes”, is how she put it. Overall Shakespeare says nothing because multiple sides of an argument cancel each other out, leaving a tangle of contradiction. Characters try to make progress in a certain direction, only to run into all kinds of snags, which leave them right back where they started. Hamlet trying to make up his mind what to do about his murderous uncle is a good example.

The second series of The Morning Show describes a Shakespearean kind of situation, where people attempt to move on, only to find steps forward becoming backward stumbles. Former news anchor, Mitch Kessler, sacked from The Morning Show for his behaviour towards women, has taken refuge in a lonely Italian villa overlooking Lake Como. Here he tries to come to terms with himself, and work out a way of moving on. He is fortunate to meet an Italian woman, Paola Lambruschini, a struggling documentary film maker. After forming an uneasy but supportive relationship, Paola neatly summarises Mitch’s dilemma as a cancelled celebrity. If he apologises for his conduct, he’s insincere. Do-gooding acts are self-serving. Continuing to live his life is callous. Choosing to end it all and shuffle off this mortal coil, is the coward’s way out. He just has to suffer. So, does Mitch have any control, any ability to improve himself and his life, or does he simply have to let fate take its course?

In the end Mitch doesn’t quite take any of the choices Paola offers him. Driving alone at night, tortured by doubts, he swerves to avoid an on-coming car, and then allows himself to crash. This is not really an accident, even though an accident is part of what happens. Mitch makes a choice, which is combined with what was happening anyway.

Now we turn to the fate of his long-time partner at The Morning Show, Alex Levy. She is threatened by looming revelations of her past intimate relationship with Mitch, and the fact that she knew what he was like but said nothing. First she begs Maggie Brenner, the writer of a tell-all book about The Morning Show, for mercy. That doesn’t work. Then, just before Mitch takes that fateful, final drive, Alex turns up at his villa and demands that he write a letter saying they never slept together. Although they enjoy a sweet interlude of rekindled affection, no letter from Mitch is going to save Alex. She returns to America knowing the book will soon be published, exposing her as the willing mistress of a sexual predator.

At this point, Alex does seem to take a step forward in accepting her situation. After learning of Mitch’s death, she attends his bleak memorial service. Alex feels compelled to give a speech revealing very real feelings of affection for her former partner, admitting the complexity of a situation where a bad person has good qualities. But if this acceptance seems like growth it soon turns into a backwards lurch. The Morning Show presenter Bradley Jackson does a great job of blunting the impact of the revelatory book – interviewing Maggie Brenner in a way that paints the author as a ruthless opportunist, while Alex comes over as someone trying to do better. Alex seems to be saved, Twitter giving praise for trying to move on – relief that lasts only until footage of her memorial speech is leaked on-line. Now Twitter turns, condemning Alex as the same person she has always been, sleeping with the enemy. In panic, Alex falls over a shoe, bangs her head, and ends up in hospital where she tests positive for covid. Was she infected in Italy, and did she then recklessly expose her co-workers on The Morning Show to the virus? Could things get any worse? Everything Alex has attempted in an effort to improve her situation fails. Trapped and alone in a dark, luxury apartment, she descends into a feverish, covid nightmare.

At this point, Alex’s loyal producer, Charlie Black, provides one last chance at redemption. He offers to put her covid experience on television, allowing people to see her pain and empathise with it. And in a finale to camera, vomit cleaned up, hair brushed, makeup reducing a febrile pallor, Alex confronts the world and herself. This represents a similar step forward to that seen at the memorial service. She accepts who she is, though this time she does so in public. There is no hiding now. But once again acceptance is ambivalent. By understanding her nature there is obviously a chance to change. Some of her confessional self-analysis has that feeling. Equally, though, her acceptance of who she is also has the feeling of, ‘this is who I am, I’m not going to be ashamed, get used to it.’ We are back with paradoxes rather than answers.

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Brackenbury says

“Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours, makes the night morning and the noontime night.”

The Morning Show says the same thing. In an age that wants closure, clear judgements, black and white answers, this is a show that, for better or worse, recalls the tradition of Shakespeare where the real nature of life is an endless paradox where light can be dark, night can be morning, and there is always hope for another day, a new edition of The Morning Show to describe another twist in the tale.

Is it better or worse to present life in this way? Personally, I feel it is closer to reality than assuming that there are final answers to the problems of people living together. Life goes on, which does rather work against the idea of finality. It’s always a kind of cobbled together compromise. At least compromise is something that is naturally open to moderation and understanding. The Shakespearean approach has this going for it – the promise that life will continue. There will always be something else for The Morning Show to talk about.

Books Do Furnish A Room, By Anthony Powell – The Power Of Decorative Bookshelves

Books Do Furnish A Room, is the tenth instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time.

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, narrator Nick Jenkins attempts to gather the threads of his old life as a writer. He joins a small publishing firm called Quiggin and Craggs. The mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road Nick is rather out of place at a company that specialises in radical, left wing political material. But a job’s a job, especially in these dark, austere, post-war years when publishing is at its lowest ebb, “owing to a shortage of paper, and governmental restrictions of one kind or another”. Nick does his best, producing book reviews, and in an echo of his wartime military liaison job, looking after relations between the company and its star writer, X. Trapnel. In his spare time he works on a study of Robert Burton’s An Anatomy of Melancholy.

The post-war setting of Books Do Furnish A Room is undeniably bleak. Friends have been lost in tragic circumstances, bomb damage is everywhere, there are food shortages, power cuts and freezing weather. It is little wonder that Nick has turned his attention to Robert Burton’s famous work about sadness. Nevertheless, Books Do Furnish A Room retains the familiar humour of the Dance series. I often found myself chuckling. How to find happiness in a time of misery? That’s the question Nick seems to be trying to answer.

War has produced the dark world in which Nick now scrapes a living and looks for his secret of contentment. As during the war, he finds himself surrounded by people holding divergent and sometimes extreme views. The possibility of conflict is as real as ever. Nick, in his usual middling place, is trying to keep the peace. At least he is not alone there. He is joined in many ways by the manager of his publishing company, a man known as ‘Books Do Furnish A Room Bagshaw’. Books Bagshaw takes an approach to management favoured by some politicians – studiously never really giving away what he believes in, if indeed he believes in anything. As people argue about their strongly-held views, you begin to wonder if the best books, the ones most conducive to increasing the store of human happiness, might be those that don’t express very much. After all, Books Bagshaw keeps his volatile staff together by bantering his way along in a superficial manner. His nickname – which incidentally is perhaps derived from words uttered when drunken attempts to retrieve an inaccessible volume brought a massive bookcase down on his head – is not a phrase suggesting significant and meaningful relations with books. They serve as pleasant wallpaper. Given the troublesome passions stirred by significance and meaning, ‘books do furnish a room’ could be the mantra for those of a moderate disposition at a time when the world has been wrecked by conflict.

Fittingly, Books Do Furnish A Room shows writers not as great artists creating deathless, meaningful prose, but as chaotic, variously flawed individuals leading less then ethereal lives. The portrayal of writer X. Trapnel, for example, is a masterpiece in hilarious characterisation. An eccentric young man who loves the romantic idea of being a writer, he hams it up for all he is worth, acting out different, contradictory versions of the creative life, while living in squalor. The superficial charm of Trapnel’s author glamour persuades a sequence of young women to live with him. They all leave, once they experience the reality of not having enough money for the electricity meter, and sitting in pubs listening to the exposition of endless, boring literary theories. It is Trapnel’s misfortune to finally fall in love with the dreadful Pamela Widermerpool, a sociopath who spreads disaster wherever she goes. Between the effect of Pamela’s baleful influence and his own chaotic lifestyle, Trapnel fails to produce great work. Nevertheless his sad story coincides with reassurance that greatness is probably not the way to happiness. Books will end up looking decorative on a shelf, no matter how mediocre or great they are. There is something in that very lack of significance which, in the end, is the best promise of peace and happiness following a time of war.

So if Nick finds happiness, he does not do so via any esoteric wisdom, but in the day to day events of life, which are available for anyone to enjoy. In that sense Books Do Furnish A Room is reassuring, a deceptively light novel with a message that light novels have something important to impart. This book, as part of a massive twelve volume sequence, is hugely ambitious, and yet humble and self effacing. As usual the awful, self-congratulatory recurring character of Kenneth Widdmerpool, continuing ever upwards in his ambitious trajectory, shows what happens when humility is missing from aspiration. It all makes for a beguiling combination which I very much enjoyed. I’ve loved all the Dance books, but if pushed I have to say this might be my favourite so far.

One Two Three Four By Craig Brown – The Story Of A Musical Earthquake

Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, is a history of the Beatles. It’s also an account of someone trying to get to grips with the whole Beatles heritage business, with its religious relics, and pilgrimages to shrines. Craig Brown is like Chaucer reincarnated to write the Beatles story, puncturing pretensions with cheeky wit. By standing back and making this an account not only of the story, but also of trying to understand it, we actually get a more sensitive feel for the indefinite nature of this history, and any history. Paul McCartney is quoted, reflecting on some vexed question of Beatles lore: ‘In an earthquake, you get many different versions of what happened by all the people that saw it. And they’re all true.’

Whatever the particular earthquake an individual might recall, we can generally agree that earthquakes are harrowing events. So it is with this story. The tale that emerges over 640 odd pages, is occasionally exciting, often funny in a Keystone Cops kind of way, but ultimately sad, ridiculous and traumatic. Rarely has a group of people been so successful, creatively and materially – and rarely has success coincided with such farce and disillusion. This tale of dark contradiction is movingly portrayed through all kinds of sources, from the diary entries of fans, to the reminiscences of young policemen called in to shut down roof top performances in the middle of London.

The narrative’s trajectory is really encapsulated by the compelling and tragic final pages, where we work backwards, from band manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, through events over the previous five years leading up to it. Usually we assume that we make progress moving forward. In this story things are getting better going backwards, from a dreadful denouement involving depression and drugs, through gathering problems where success leaves someone vulnerable to manipulative individuals, to early excitement and promise. It’s like the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels in the 1960s, dated and mouldy by 2019, when Craig Brown visits to explore a tacky fair selling overpriced Beatles memorabilia.

Towards the end of his Beatles career, in his song Across The Universe, John Lennon wrote “nothing’s going to change my world”. This is a line resulting from living through his own earthquake. Earth-shattering fame and fortune did not bring any real change to his life. All that was bad about it remained, and perhaps, as with Brian Epstein, was actually magnified. And yet if life never changes, then you never really lose the good things about it either. All those remembered joys which the Beatles looked back on with such aching nostalgia – inspiring songs like Yesterday, In My Life, or Get Back – were somehow still there.

One Two Three Four is the kind of story that makes you feel better about your lot. To quote a Beatles song title – Baby You’re a Rich Man Too. By the end of the book that is how I felt. It’s fine to try and achieve something, but always be thankful for what you have.

The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell – Time Marches On

The ninth book of Anthony Powell’s twelve volume A Dance To a the Music Of Time series, The Military Philosophers sees Nick Jenkins, former writer and critic, settled in his World War Two army career. After serving as a junior infantry officer, he transfers to military liaison, helping smooth relations between Britain and its various allies.

A Dance To The Music Of Time has generally been about the peculiar patterns that emerge as time makes its apparently aimless, sometimes chaotic, progress. In this wartime period, life is both more rigid – dominated by uniforms, military regulation, limitation of movements and freedom – and yet more uncertain. From this basic irony arises all the complexity of this remarkable novel. With an apparently humble role in Whitehall, Nick’s quiet observations now reach through to the heart of government – a good place to look at the relationship of order and disorder. There are civil servants who spend their lives fettling tiny details, while other more flamboyant figures take reckless risks. Nick follows a middle path as usual, his military rank a middling one, his approach to risk and caution, discipline and rebelliousness, a lesson in compromise. Sometimes this half-way house seems a place where personal power is at its most limited. The previous volume had described Nick’s efforts to look after those below him in rank. In The Military Philosophers, it’s the generals who require attention to their every whim. Nick reminded me of someone at that time of life when you are still looking after children, while also finding it increasingly necessary to care for ageing parents.

However, towards the end of the book, Nick has a moment of unexpected power. With the war almost over, volatile young men in the Belgian resistance, until this point fighting their common German enemy, show signs of falling out amongst themselves. It is thought vital to evacuate these men to Britain where they can receive army training. Getting this to happen quickly seems a hopeless task. But Nick’s intermediate position means he knows lots of people. Not isolated by exalted or humble rank, he links everything up – a liaison officer in more ways than one. It’s just a matter of talking to a few friends who can make a difference; and within days, against all the laws of bureaucratic inertia, those twitchy young Belgians are shipped off for their training. Now the middle, buffeted by demands from all sides, becomes the most powerful place to be. Nick single-handedly prevents civil war in Belgium. But it’s best not to bring any attention to these actions, which certainly failed to follow the usual stodgy chains of command. Rather than making a big thing of his success, Nick just quietly gets on with arrangements for looking after representatives of allied nations at a thanksgiving service to mark the war’s end.

This service, in St Paul’s Cathedral, brings together people from many nations and stations of life. It’s an event that really gives focus to the sense that whether you are a great leader, humble follower, or someone in-between, there is always a chance to play your part in events that often seem to have a life of their own. This coincides with a feeling in The Military Philosophers that a person’s eminence, or lack of it, is as much down to luck as anything else. Some people win awards for bravery, some are given awards for political reasons, while the bravery of others happens unacknowledged and out of sight. Everyone, in one way or another, has a place at the service of thanksgiving, celebrating the achievement of getting through the war. This scene serves as a fitting end to a fascinating and humane book.

Silverview by John Le Carré – “The Best Lack All Conviction, While The Worst Are Full Of Passionate Intensity“

Silverview is John Le Carré’s posthumously published 2021 novel about a City trader who plots an escape to bookshop ownership in a quiet English seaside town. But once installed in his new shop, he inadvertently becomes involved in the affairs of a disenchanted former spy.

Obviously, reviewing a book like this involves not giving away plot details, keeping secrets, as any good agent gathering information is obliged to do. But a review is also designed to let people in on a few secrets so that a potential reader can decide if this is a book for them. Or you might have already read the book and are looking to see what someone else found in it. Tricky – the secrets you keep or give away in this intelligence report.

What I will say is that I enjoyed Silverview. To me it was a study in the contradictions of belief, the meaning that people find in being passionate about something – whether that’s related to religion, politics, nationality or fighting the good fight against extreme manifestations of whatever belief people latch onto. Agents who are passionate about the rightness of their mission are highly motivated. However, that passion remains an unpredictable energy, which can easily express itself in dangerous ways. Here we have the thoughts of a Secret Service staffer, who characterises life in the Service as the avoidance of passion:

Absolute commitment of any sort constituted to his trained mind a grave security threat. The entire ethic of the Service was utterly – he would almost say absolutely – opposed to it, unless, that is, you were talking of manipulating the absolute commitment of an agent you were running.

As a final note, with an admitted risk to security, I will share one thought with you, which might help provide a way into the central contradiction of Silverview. Perhaps Le Carré puts his main idea into the form of a little code. It would be a similar code to that found in the name of the lovely character, Liz Gold, in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In that book it is hard to work out where exactly constitutes the Cold, when one side uses the same ruthless tactics as the other. This confusion might be characterised by Liz Gold’s name – gold sounding so similar to cold. Silverview has a character who had me thinking similar furtive thoughts. She has a “nun-like” devotion, representing a capacity for passionate commitment, which has ambivalent outcomes. Her name is only one letter away from ‘mania’. I will leave you to find her and come to your own conclusions.

This book brings the spy story into an age where those national struggles the Service was built to support, have themselves become a threat. It’s a fascinating and timely addition to Le Carré’s collection of work

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. Indeed it appears that there is a system known as SciFutures, used by NATO amongst others, where fiction writers try to imagine the future and allow better planning for it.

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.