Good Bad Writing

Rules become more demanding in times of trouble. There is a clearer and more unforgiving sense of good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. Ironically, however, times of trouble can also see civilised rules of behaviour torn apart.

A Farewell to Arms tells a story set in World War One. An American named Frederick Henry joins the Italian army as an ambulance driver. Caught in a chaotic retreat, he witnesses summary and arbitrary justice meted out by military policemen. Realising his own side is as lethal as the enemy, Henry deserts. The story then follows Henry through his desperate escape bid.

The writing of Henry’s story mirrors the breaking of rules in his life. As a narrator, Frederick Henry ignores all the civilised writing rules drummed into the aspiring author – repeated words, frequent adverbs, passive voice, limited vocabulary, confusing sentences, liberal use of intensifiers such as “very”, which intensify weak adjectives such as “nice”.

And yet the rules of good writing lurk, the demanding sense that these words are shaped. This “bad” writing aspires to excellence. In the famous opening paragraph, Hemingway uses repeated words like “the” to give rhythm, as in a spoken conversation. The use of “the” also serves to conduct us into Henry’s world, where mountains he describes are “the” mountains which narrator and reader both seem to be looking at, rather than any old range of hills introduced to us at the beginning of a story.

From then on every untutored line has a hidden quality. Take, for example, the following exchange:

“I went everywhere. Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Villa San Giovanni, Messina, Taormina——” “You talk like a time-table. Did you have any beautiful adventures?”



“Milano, Firenze, Roma, Napoli——”

A timetable might not seem like great writing, but there is undeniable beauty in simple place names. Place names, for example, are hugely influential in song writing, the music journalist Nick Coleman suggesting that apart from love, “pop is better on cities than anything else.”

The writing of A Farewell to Arms might have the literary quality of a timetable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t aspire to the sort of poetry informing thousands of songs.

A Farewell to Arms is a perfect combination of form and content, of what is said and how it is said. As in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, A Farewell to Arms is a remarkable writing achievement in the form of not very good writing

The Sellout

Sell Out

In The Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper presents an internet show called Fun With Flags. The Sellout by Paul Beatty, could be called Fun With Racism, with a central character who, like Sheldon, is more than a little gauche when it comes to normal social conventions. And in not getting conventions, both Sheldon and Me – as Paul Beatty’s narrator is called – often provide us with a unique insight into the bizarre nature of human interaction.

Of course Sheldon often gets into trouble for his naïveté; and the same is true of Me. This book is full of society’s most taboo subjects, their inconsistencies innocently pulled apart. Writing The Sell Out must have felt like walking a fraying tight rope. Setting out to write a review was similarly worrysome. It felt as though I was taking my life in my hands just naming a file “The Sellout Review” on my iPad.

But I suppose that’s the sign of an interesting book. And it is interesting, doing what good books do, exploring all the messy space left behind by neat scientific theories, or tidy political correctness of all kinds.

As Me says of his late psychology professor father:

“If there is a heaven worth the effort that people make to get there, then I hope for my father’s sake there’s a celestial psychology journal. One that publishes the results of failed experiments, because acknowledging unsubstantiated theories and negative results is just as important as publishing studies proving red wine is the cure-all we’d always pretended it was.”

Admittedly the book itself is messy. The plot can hardly be described as tight, seeming to be about trying to establish a segregated school, or finding lost copies of enjoyable but racist cartoons. Towards the end I did find my attention wandering as far as plot was concerned. I was just hopping from one amusing social observation to another.

Nevertheless this is a good book, and I would recommend it. It’s not a tidy work of social theory, but as Kierkagaard said – on a promotional poster I noticed in Waterstones recently:

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

The Sellout reminds us that novels are not really about problem solving, but reality experiencing and sharing

Bringing the News Back Home – Reading Scoop

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop describes life as a foreign correspondent for the Beast newspaper in the 1930’s. Lord Copper, owner of The Beast, advocates a style of journalism which is still very much with us today.

‘The Beast stands for strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere… Self-sufficiency at home, self-assertion abroad.’

A Beast type newspaper likes to support antagonistic governments because it seeks news through antagonism. Never mind who suffers from the trouble this causes, as long as news and sales follow. In the Scoop world, it appears that the people suffering are comfortingly foreign. They live in places reassuringly far away, like Scoop’s fictional East African country Ishmaelia, or a Balkan state where a journalist sets off a revolution, by falling asleep on a train, getting out at the wrong station, and writing about barricades and flaming churches in the unfortunate country in which he happens to find himself.

The idea that disruptive news can be safely inflicted on distant foreigners is, however, illusory. Scoop has many international complications, which suggest that antagonism is a kind of carelessly used biological weapon, the effects of which are hard to control. Historians have documented the role of the nationalist “yellow press” in stoking up tensions that led to a dispute in the Balkans becoming a Europe-wide conflagration in 1914. Similarly, as the Second World War approached, Lord Rothermere, co-founder of the Daily Mail, was happily supporting the antagonistic governments of Germany and Italy, as a defence against the Bolshevik Russians, and we all know how well that turned out.

It is perhaps the perfect irony that today’s Beast type newspapers, in their continuing support of antagonistic governments everywhere, love Brexit, and so bring disruption back home to roost in the Beast’s back yard. They have helped make Britain into Ishmaelia.

Scoop is a very funny novel. The central character – the writer of a nature column accidentally recruited as a foreign correspondent – is an innocent abroad. But the seriousness underlying the humour and innocence is as relevant today as it was in 1938.

Water, Earth and Fire Versus Hot Air – Robert Harris’s Pompeii


Picture a world where nature is seen in superstitious and conceited terms, where people put themselves at the centre of everything, so that natural disasters must be our fault. “The mountain is destroying us –we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little –a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded.”

Picture this world led by men projecting a fantasy of wealth and power, all based on the shifting sands of corruption, intimidation and blind faith.

This recognisably contemporary scenario is reflected in Robert Harris’s Pompeii, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of a Roman water supply engineer, who in the tense days and hours before the eruption tries to repair the Augusta aqueduct. Damaged by ground displacement near Vesuvius, the Augusta supplies water to Roman towns around the Bay of Naples, a society of recognisably modern fragility where just a few hours interruption of supply brings rioting in the streets.

So if we are seeing our own world through the doomed town of Pompeii, does it show us any answers? To some extent you would have to say no. In the shadow of vast natural forces there is a sense of inevitability, as though there is not much an individual can do to change things. On the other hand this is a story championing practical competence and integrity. While nature has the power to swat away the most powerful society in the world, someone who understands and respects the truth, who sees that certain fundamentals apply in Rome, Gaul, Campania, or anywhere else, is able to work with nature to achieve an engineering miracle such as the Augusta aqueduct

Pompeii presents an age old struggle between two styles of leadership, the first based on competence, the second on the power of superstition and unquestioning belief. You can always challenge a water engineer with the fact that water is not coming out of the pipes. But if a Roman official comes along and suggests making an offering to Jupiter to solve the water supply problem – as a pompous town official does at one point – how do you prove this approach is incorrect? It is difficult to prove that Jupiter is not there to listen, or that the official does not have a special relationship with Jupiter, or that Jupiter does not direct the engineer in his work. You are in the slippery realm of spin and interpretation, where a priestess can make a prophecy about the glorious future of Pompeii, surviving long after others have fallen, thronged by visitors speaking in every tongue. It is possible to see this vision as accurate and hopelessly wrong.

In the end, however, the solid ground of faith based leadership slips from under people’s feet. No amount of sacrificing to Jupiter will stop Vesuvius erupting, or make water flow into busy towns full of thirsty people. And no amount of corruption and financial trickery will do this either. Pompeii is a gripping celebration of competence over delusional hot air, and in that sense this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance, even more so now in 2018 than when it was published in 2003.

Miss Jean Brodie – The End of the World Comes Without Intruding on Everyday Life


First edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published 1961

Miss Jean Brodie is an unconventional teacher at a conventional girl’s primary school in 1930s Edinburgh. Ignoring the curriculum, she gathers her charges under an elm tree in the school grounds, telling them stories of her lover lost in the First World War, and describing visits to Italy. She tells the children how much she admires Mussolini’s fascisti. Hang on, what was that? I went back and made sure I’d read it right, only to realise that, yes, this charismatic spinster is actually a budding fascist. On later trips to Germany she comes back with glowing reports of Hitler’s Brown Shirts.

I had to have a think at this point. It struck me that historically the founder of the German Nazi party was a locksmith. Jean Brodie is a parallel for one of these apparently unassuming but dangerous personalities. She’s not an obvious monster, but is all the more insidious for her apparent ordinariness. She’s like a sunset described at one point in the book, looking like “the end of the world had come without intruding on everyday life.”

The crucial thing is not that Miss Brodie is overtly evil, but that she has her own ideas about good and evil. Her values are focused entirely on herself. She accepts no outside system. As time goes on it becomes ever clearer that she exists beyond right and wrong as judged by society. Jean Brodie decides right and wrong.

Jean Brodie is a shock. But perhaps the biggest shock of the book is the subtle warning that while most people look outside themselves for guidance, whether it’s headmistresses, governments, or religion, all of these sources of authority are created by people. In the end there is no authority beyond people to which they can refer. One of Jean Brodie’s girls takes refuge as an adult in the Roman Catholic Church, an environment which we are told would have ideally suited Miss Brodie. This was an organisation in which there were “quite a number of fascists” who believe what they do is right because it is them doing it.

This is a humorous, beautifully written, frequently charming novel. Fittingly for a story about a teacher, it also has some hard, unsettling lessons.

Echoes of Munich


The Munich Conference of September 1938 has had a massive influence on subsequent history. Retrospective judgment of British government efforts to maintain peace in Europe has contributed to all kinds of bad decisions, from Anthony Eden’s ill fated attempt to invade Egypt in 1956, to Tony Blair’s military adventures in the Balkans and the Middle East. It has even been referenced in the nationalist politics of Brexit. All of this folly has been supported, to a greater or lesser extent, by the idea that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a mistake trying to find peace in Munich.

With this in mind it is fascinating to visit an influential moment in history and explore it, via Hugh Legat, Robert Harris’s fictional junior Foreign Office civil servant seconded to Number 10 Downing Street, to answer the PM’s phone and carry around his red ministerial boxes. An old university friend of Legat, junior German diplomat Paul von Hartmann, is a member of a group of German officials determined to stop Hitler. Hartmann and Legat try to smuggle documents describing Hitler’s real expansionist intentions to the British government in the hope that the conference will be abandoned. The idea is that with Britain and France standing firm, Hitler’s position would be weakened, allowing the rebel group to have him removed.

As the Munich conference unfolds, Harris’s story provides an intimate view of the real complexity of the situation; the widespread revulsion of going to war again so soon after the disaster of the First World War; the fact that British forces weren’t ready; the need to buy time so that rearmament started by Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin could continue; the fact that the German rebels wanted to restore the Kaiser, who three quarters of a million British soldiers had died trying to defeat twenty years before; the fact that people could not see the future.

This last point is the most significant. We see the difficulty of making decisions based on what might happen rather than on what is happening. I thought of Tony Blair, so worried about being viewed as an appeaser, misjudging the evidence of supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, dragging Britain into a war investigated ever since in the context of criminality. Blair has claimed that without his decision to stand up to Saddam Hussain, things would now be worse than they are. Well, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, and a whole region plunged into chaos, the alternative Blair saved us from must be bad. And anyway, how can we possibly know? It’s as though we’re being asked to climb into a time travelling DeLoren, to try out different realities. How do we know if Chamberlain would have been viewed differently by history if he had stood up to Hitler, in the face of a population which didn’t want war, with armed forces unready to fight it. No doubt that route would have had its own disasters. As pointed out in Munich, Hitler himself thought a war in 1938 would have been preferable to war the following year, since Germany’s military position was better then.

Robert Harris’s book is a deceptively straight forward account of a crucial four days in European history. There are few philosophical asides, but the events tell their own story. So many later decisions have felt their influence, and so much that is thought provoking can spin off from them.

The final thought I had finishing the book was that people who love the appeasement myth, who love the idea of aggressive resistance, are actually rather close bedfellows of the nationalist dictators that Chamberlain struggled to contain. Munich is a book for our times, a nuanced lesson from history rather than something cooked up to support a sense of resistance during wartime.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


Reviewing One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a bit like waking up in the morning, recalling a night of dreams deriving from some murky brain lobe where the rules of physics and politeness do not apply, and wondering how many stars to award. Applying numbers and categorisation to dreams is always going to be difficult. The song Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream popped into my mind as I struggled with my star awarding decision.

With no resolution to my quandary in sight, I indulged in some avoidance, idly looking up a Wikipedia article about Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream; and who would have thought it – that song is a good analogy for A Hundred Years Of Solitude. Bob Dylan’s lyrics, according to the article, describe “numerous bizarre encounters and happenings taking place in a highly sardonic, non-linear dreamscape, cataloguing the discovery, creation and merits of the United States.”

Just replace United States with Colombia and you have a description of A Hundred Years Of Solitude.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream was released on the Bringing It All Back Home album in 1965 – a few years before the publication of A Hundred Years Of Solitude, on 30th May 1967. Two days later, on 1st June 1967, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I often thought of Sergeant Pepper during the strange experience of reading Marquez’s book. Sergeant Pepper is an album of the lonely modern age. People used to live on top of each other in open halls with no dividing walls. Now they tend to live more solitary lives in individual rooms,  all bunched together in densely populated towns and cities. A Hundred Years Of Solitude features a rambling, old-world family living incestuously close to each other, who nevertheless tend to shut themselves away in rooms, where they engage in such things as obsessive metal work, or dwelling on past grievances. One character dreams of endless identical rooms, and ends up forgetting which room was the “real” one. At least a room of your own offers the chance to switch off and let your mind wander – which wouldn’t be possible out in the hurly burly where people would tell you to stop daydreaming and chop some wood. It’s like Sergeant Pepper’s Fixing a Hole where someone is “fixing a hole” in the roof of a room. Rain comes in through the gap and stops his mind from wandering.

That seemed to be what A Hundred Years Of Solitude was about – a dream version of Colombia’s history describing the contradictory nature of isolation.

Did I enjoy it? That’s a hard question to answer. Do I enjoy a dream which leaves me rattled and reflective when I wake up? Did psychologist Karl Jung enjoy one of the most influential dreams of his life in which God destroys Basel Cathedral by defecating on its roof?

I will say the book was a powerful experience, beautifully written, which takes solitary experience – like reading – and finds a kind of companionship in it.

I decided on five stars.

A Brief History Of My Efforts To Understand Physics

Stephen Hawking summarises the difficulty of his book right at the end. Science has become ever more complex and specialised. All the grand, universal theories of A Brief History are actually the work of experts who only have time to understand their small patch. This breaking down of knowledge into pieces has been going on for centuries, gathering pace after 1776 when, in his Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith described the future of industry as the division of labour. Then in 1988 Stephen Hawking comes along and has a go at explaining the whole of modern physics, with all its specialised fields and competing experts, to a general reader.

Perhaps part of A Brief History Of Time’s remarkable success lies in a nostalgic reaction. People used to live in houses with one big room. Go to Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford and you’ll see how a sixteenth century hall was split into the rooms of later centuries. Perhaps, in a figurative sense, we look into a tiny room in the attic – where the physicist has a study – and yearn to return to that big hall where everyone is in it together.

So how did Stephen Hawking do? I have to admit to reading general books on physics that I have found much easier and more compelling – Superforce for example, by Paul Davies, an accomplished physicist in his own right. This is a book I read back in the 1980s after failing, on that occasion, to get to the end of A Brief History. But Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous physicists of modern times, isolated both by his esoteric field of expertise and his illness. Looking into the study of such a man increases the frisson.

Overall I would say I caught the gist of at least some of A Brief History, without feeling I gained a deep knowledge of anything. Maybe that is an inevitable part of what us general readers might call the Dilettante Principle, our equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle. You can either know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little, but not both.

I think if I’m honest I was more interested in the book not so much for what was in it – which I often had a tough time following – but for what it represents about the times we live in, where people know more and more about smaller and smaller areas. A lot of good books are like that. They catch a moment.

A Book That Helps

Saul Bellow’s narrator Augie March – a 1930s working class, Chicago-born boy with vaguely European aristocratic connections – tells the story of his efforts to work out what to do with his life. Early on he develops an interest in high brow culture, though the books he reads are derelict Harvard classic cast offs, or books shoplifted in a scam designed to supply students at the local university. Shoplifting and other petty crime might not suggest a good person in the strictest sense, though with his warmth and inability to resist helping anyone in trouble, Augie often seems like a person who is too good for the rough world in which he lives. The writing itself presents a similar irony, breaking all kinds of grammatical regulations, and yet achieving beauty.

Amongst all this confusion you keep wondering how Augie is going to find his own path in life, particularly when he is always helping other, less selfless individuals achieve their own aims. He finds himself assisting a number of powerful people, who he realises manage to “intercept the big social ray, or collect and concentrate it like burning glass.” Tolstoy, in War and Peace, portrayed Napoleon in a similar way, as someone whose larger than life image was due to the way he caught the way things were looking, rather than deciding on the way things should look. Tolstoy suggested that a humble person, like Augie, free from all the “social rays” shining on Napoleon, would ironically have more control over his life. Saul Bellow, in the end seems to suggest the same thing.

By the end of Augie’s long journey it’s not clear if he has discovered the answer to finding a good path through life. The book does not provide any clear advice you can sum up in a review. This is not a self-help book you could call How to be Rich, Fulfilled, Powerful and In Charge of Your Life because categories of good and bad, wealth and poverty, power and humility, don’t make much sense in its pages. There is, however, at least a suggestion of that reassuring idea John Lennon described in All You Need Is Love, when he said: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” It’s that suggestion which makes this book not so much a self help book, as a book that helps

The View From Mona Lisa’s Window – Riding the Pilgrims’ Way

The Pilgrims’ Way, one of my favourite cycle rides, does not take you through the Alps or the High Sierra. There’s no Matterhorn or Grand Canyon, no easy recourse to adjectives of size. An understated beauty is not easy to describe, as Leonardo Da Vinci found when he had a go at painting a subtle smile.

Thinking and reading about the Pilgrims’ Way, in the afterglow of a ride along it, I discovered a history as a simple track, which evolved at a convenient border between heavy, cultivated lowland soil, and rough, sometimes inaccessible ground up on the crest of the North Downs. Borrowing from Saul Bellow, this was an unassuming route serving travellers “without any special Jerusalem or Kiev in mind.” And yet the North Downs trackway – originally running from the Kent coast all the way to the ceremonial monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire – also has undeniable mystical connections. The Wiltshire ceremonial complexes, and the road connected to them, were built on dramatic landscape features which have long figured in people’s imaginations as spiritual symbols. The Hindus had their mythic Mount Meru, the Japanese, Mount Fuji, the Christians, Mount Sinai. Greek goddesses lived on Mount Parnassus. The people of ancient Britain revered their downland. The Pilgrims’ Way was a functional route, which remained part of a symbolic outdoor theatre extending across a swath of southern England, designed to make you think bigger and see wider. It was difficult to differentiate the special place you were travelling towards and the affecting road you travelled to get there.

The power of the Pilgrims’ Way is demonstrated by the fact that it suffered a fate reserved for the most spiritually significant of places – usurpation by Christianity. Following the founding of Britain’s first Christian church, at Canterbury by missionary St Augustine in 597AD, a policy of assimilation began. Just as pagan celebrations were modified into Christian festivals, and churches built on the sites of older shrines, so people made pilgrimages from Winchester to Canterbury along the same road used by their predecessors. It was the Victorians who finished the process of assimilation, when they decided to invent a Pilgrims’ Way, giving the suggestion that this route was some kind of standardised road dedicated to Christian pilgrimage. This isn’t the case. People on pilgrimage to Canterbury came not just from Winchester, but from all over the country, using any convenient route. Chaucer’s pilgrims, for example, made their journey from London to Canterbury along Watling Street, the course of which is now marked by the less than spiritual A2. The official history of the Ordnance Survey terms the name Pilgrims’ Way an “enduring archeological blunder” blaming OS director Sir Henry James, after one of his researchers applied the term to the route in 1871.

The enthusiasms of Sir Henry James aside, I like to remember that the North Down’s trackway has a much bigger history than that related to Christian pilgrims. This is a route probably dating to the Stone Age – archeological finds suggesting a history stretching back to at least 400-600BC. Up on a hillside that stretches for hundreds of miles, you enjoy a breadth of vision that is not comfortable with confinement in certain places, or the names of this or that religion. It is not even comfortable with the label of historical significance, preferring instead to remain a quiet, unassuming route, parts of which do not appear on most maps. It’s a special road in the sense that Bob Dylan’s Route 61, or the Beatles’ Penny Lane are special – never so extraordinary that they are shut away from daily life.