Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld – Alternate Deals With The Devil

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is an alternative history, imagining what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton after they met as students at Yale.

So I think the idea is that the real Hillary made a kind of pact with the devil in her marriage. Colleagues and mentors thought Hillary had the potential to do great things in her own right, and disapproved when their brilliant protege moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas to help boyfriend Bill Clinton with his campaign to win the state governorship. Hillary already knew that Bill was unfaithful but decided to live with it. Then in 1974, a woman who worked on the Clinton campaign, approached Hillary in a Fayetteville carpark and accused her boyfriend of sexual assault.

The real Hillary continued to live with it, marrying Bill in 1975 and following him all the way to the White House, where she put her undoubted abilities to good use behind the scenes. She also served as Secretary of State for President Obama.

In Rodham, Hillary does not marry Bill. She works as a law professor, before running for the senate, and then for the presidency in 2016. Without giving too much away, we can safely say that Hillary’s alternate course involves compromises and deals with the devil which are on a par with marrying Bill Clinton. This was interesting. The only problem might be that the book failed to follow through with its contradictions as fully as you might expect. Hillary does what she has to do, and is then remarkably free of consequences when the pay-off comes.

The best part of the novel for me was the early section where a young and brilliant Hillary tries to win boyfriends. The book characteristically presents cleverness alongside much more basic elements of human nature. This contradiction is present in Hillary, Bill Clinton, and America itself, which put the first man on the moon, while in some ways remaining a very backward country socially. Humanity is portrayed as a species with high intelligence combined with Stone Age instincts. In the various political campaigns depicted in the book a lot of very clever people do some very shady things. And there is always this dilemma of balancing the two sides of leadership, the technocratic affair of expertise, and the more emotional business of flag waving, schmoozing, giving good jobs to your mates, and shouting.

I don’t think this is a feminist novel, it’s more just a novel. There are some male characters who are awful. The in-your-face dreadfulness of Donald Trump is well portrayed, as is the more insidious darkness of Bill Clinton. And yet there is also a surprising amount of romance novel in the writing style – of both the Black Lace variety, and fake-dating-leading-to-real-dating variety. I couldn’t decide if this was clever irony or a more straight-forward fall into convention. It could have been both of course. Like Hillary herself, Rodham takes itself seriously. There is a list of discussion topics at the end. It is perhaps fitting, given the subject of the book, that the writing is literary at times, rather more populist at others.

Overall this is an interesting read, a thought experiment, where the weakness might be that the straight-forward result does not quite reflect the complex variables that go into it.

As a final note, Rodham also makes me think how ruthless writers can be – up there with politicians. Personally I would be wary of writing a book like this about people who are still living. I wonder how it made the real Hillary feel? But no doubt she has faced worse.

The Artistry of Band Names And Album Titles

Over the last few years I have written an irregular series of articles about the artistry of famous band names and album titles. I thought it would be nice to have all those articles in one place. So here they are – my tribute to the way a huge amount of expression can be packed into very few words – as demonstrated by some of history’s best song writers.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets

If we are thinking about band names, then we have to go back to the beginning. Hillbilly was the folk music of American immigrants from Europe. In the 1930s, this music gave some early signs of what was to come, throwing up a few interesting group names – the Skillet Lickers for example, an intriguing name suggesting informality, fun, tastiness as well as poverty, hunger and desperation. Primarily, however, Hillbilly, or Country as it was known from the 1940s, was a style based around individual singers. It wasn’t until the 1950s that black R&B musicians in the United States routinely started adopting quirky collective nouns – The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows. In Texas, Buddy Holly, dutiful son of a religiously conservative family, secretly listened to black musicians on late night radio. Amongst them was New Orleans vocal group, the Spiders. Later, when he became a musician himself, Buddy had to think of a name for his own group. Using The Spiders’ name as his starting point, he searched through reference books on entomology, eventually finding his way towards a much less threatening insect, the cricket. Crickets are harmless little creatures, which under the cover of darkness, fill the night with their chirpy sound. The story of Buddy Holly is something similar, the story of a young man using a kind of camouflage to make forbidden music. This camouflage was vital. In white dominated 1950s America, the music of black R&B musicians was a symbol of moral threat and a focus for bigotry. Philip Norman in his biography of Buddy Holly quotes from a leaflet distributed at the time, to restaurants and shops throughout the southern United States: “NOTICE! STOP! Help save the Youth of America. Don’t buy Negro records. If you don’t want to serve Negros in your place of business, then don’t have Negro records on your jukebox or Negro records on the radio. The screaming, idiotic words and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America. Call the advertisers on radio stations that play this type of music and complain to them…” If the Crickets wanted to write and play music inspired by black musicians, they could only do so by hiding in the linguistic long grass.

Buddy Holly died in an air crash in 1959, but the musical force he helped set free continued to develop world-wide. By the early 1960s two young Liverpudlians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were trying to think of a name for their band. As Buddy Holly fans, they naturally followed tracks that the Crickets made through dangerous social undergrowth. They decided to keep with the insect theme and become The Beatles. While the name Beetles had been on Buddy Holly’s own list of insect related name options, he realised that mainstream taste was not ready. It would take a few more years before Beatles would be acceptable, which even with its musically adapted spelling, suggested darker connotations of scuttle and scurry not seen with crickets. A style of music once symbolising sin and social breakdown was now becoming an accepted part of global society. Some bands even felt it was safe to call themselves the Spiders, major examples including a successful Japanese group formed in 1961, as well as a 1964 version of Alice Cooper’s band.


Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – one of the first albums I ever bought

The Spiders as a band name probably had its greatest success in 1972, when David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars shot into the rock stratosphere. Now it seemed the world could fully accept a group of musicians named after the kind of creatures that Buddy Holly had to turn into crickets.

Weather Report

Weather Report were a jazz fusion band of the 1970s and 1980s. As well as recording wonderful music, they came up with a band name illustrating the effort that has to go into finding just the right words. In 1970, pianist Joe Zawunil, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and bassist Miroslav Vitous, all luminaries of the jazz scene, decided to form a new band. They did not, however, have a name to describe themselves and their music. Zawunil, in an interview with Jazz Forum magazine, recounted how the three of them met at his New York apartment and went through countless names. They kept coming back to Daily News. Knowing this wasn’t quite right, the struggle continued, until Wayne Shorter pondering on the fact that news programmes always ended with a weather bulletin, suggested Weather Report. Weather Report is a better band name than Daily News because it is difficult to see a jazz band as a group of journalists. A clear story does not arise from their free flowing music. Daily News is too literal. Weather Report tells a different story. The weather is vast and ever changing, benign, glorious, dull, violent. Our ability to understand and predict the weather is partial. It’s like listening to music and feeling there is a pattern and meaning there, which is beyond our ability to fully comprehend.


Weather bulletins always come after the news, a tacit admission perhaps that talking about weather is shorthand for talking about nothing important. Nevertheless, despite their position at the bottom of the news pile, weather reports can pass on information that will blow your house away. Music is harmless entertainment, and a force with enough power to move millions. It’s a breeze on a sunny afternoon and a landscape-changing storm. None of this is in the Daily News; it’s all in the Weather Report.

Abbreviated Rock

Between 1967 and 1969, Marc Bolan led a psychedelic folk group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, which didn’t do very well. In 1970 Bolan moved to an electric sound, and modified the band’s name slightly. T. Rex went on to become one of the most influential forces in 1970s rock. T. Rex was a better name than Tyrannosaurus Rex. Let’s have a think about why that should be. T. Rex is an abbreviation, where letters are missed at the end of a word. Abbreviations can also take the form of contractions, omitting letters from the middle of a word, as in Mr; or an acronym, where different words are formed into a single set of letters, as in USA. All these reductions of language have the same effect. They concentrate ideas into something short and pithy; or bring diverse things together into one whole. They also take the form of a simple code, which tends to create a sense of excluding outsiders. There’s a suggestion of secrecy, belonging, exclusivity and power. It’s no surprise that many countries have been identified by abbreviations – USA, UAE, USSR, GDR, UK, DPRK. It’s also no surprise that abbreviations are popular with the military, in management speak and in academic titles. Ironically, however, there can also be an informality associated with shortened language. Abbreviations can be rebellious, disrespectful, conveying a subversive improperness. Bands that use abbreviations in their names tap into all of this. There are many examples – AC/DC, R.E.M., ABBA, REO Speedwagon, Booker T and the M.G’s, Guns N’ Roses, INXS, UB40, MC5, Run DMC, UK Subs, UFO, X-Ray Spex, ZZ Top, CSNY, OMD, ELO, 10cc, U2, AWOLNATION. The power of the abbreviation effect is illustrated by the fact that removing one letter can make all the difference. Led Zeppelin dropped a single a. The Lovin’ Spoonful dropped a single g.

Such is the attraction of elision that sometimes band names not intended as real abbreviations have been treated as such by imaginative fans, or by suspicious moral guardians. KISS was not an acronym, but that didn’t stop people finding Kids in Satan’s Service hiding in those four letters. The heavy metal band W.A.S.P. only put full stops between the letters of their name because they thought it looked cool. They left interpretation of their meaning to both their fans and detractors. So there you have it – T. Rex has a louder roar than Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s the power of abbreviation as illustrated by band names.

Fleetwood Mac and Rumours

Daisy Jones and the Six is a novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It tells the tale of a fictional 1970s rock group making a massively successful album. The book is clearly inspired by Fleetwood Mac, and their experience of making the Rumours album. While the book is very good in its exploration of complex creative endeavour, it also demonstrates the power of actual great names, by contrast to inferior fictional names. Compare the name of the fictional album Aurora with the name of the real album Rumours. The title of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album is deceptively simple, introducing its collection of songs in terms of the kind of enigmatic hearsay into which people can read their own concerns. Rumours circulate in times of trouble, and you never know where you are with them. Aurora by contrast is the sort of title which sounds impressive, but which is kind of straining for significance. And the fictional band name, The Six, does not compare with Fleetwood Mac, an abbreviation of the names of founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The name of the real band is less literal, and has the characteristically enigmatic quality that lies in all abbreviation. It also has a pleasing musical rhythm to it.



Blondie is the name of an American rock band fronted by Deborah Harry. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Blondie has sold in excess of forty million records over the course of a career starting in 1974. For a single word, Blondie has a lot to say. First, there is the biographical background it reveals. After graduating with an arts degree in 1965, Deborah Ann Harry worked at BBC offices in New York, then as a waitress, a go-go dancer and a Playboy Bunny. I don’t know if young Deborah found herself called Blondie at the BBC, but in her waitressing and dancing jobs, this was how men often refered to her. The first thing to note about the name Blondie is the “ie” ending. This sound often denotes something small, insignificant, playful, charming, as in cutie or sweetie. The linguist Otto Jespersen has suggested that the effect of ie is to convey a childlike quality. Children tend to add an ie sound – one of the easiest to produce – at the end of words as they begin to learn language. So Blondie has this suggestion of something cute and childlike. Those characteristics then collide with the reality of Blondie as a hard-hitting rock band. Blondie now takes on a different nature. There is something tough in the name, a denial of intimacy and individuality. It’s a generic nickname for fair-haired young women, which while starting all cutesy in the nursery, has now taken us into seedy bars and clubs where superficial adult relationships are playing out.

The music Blondie made is like a novel based on the short story of their name. Listening to my favourite Blondie album Parallel Lines, we meet Sunday Girl, “as cold as ice cream but still as sweet.” Heart of Glass, portrays a similar character. A glass heart suggests someone tough and unemotional, but also fragile and vulnerable . In One Way or Another, a cold hearted girl is both a stalker making dark threats, and a playful little thing, giving you the slip in a game of hide and seek. There’s Pretty Baby – that ie sound again – about a young girl trying to separate the fantasies of romance from reality. Picture This, is a love song to the fictional vision of a loved one rather than an acceptance of their reality. Fade Away and Radiate, similarly, paints a picture of someone watching a film, who feels a deeper connection with a silvery screen goddess than with real people in daily life. Finally, there’s a line in I Know But I Don’t Know, about how “I’m your dog but not your pet.” Blondie is a pet, a bunny, a cutie, the vision of a perfect, undemanding companion; but you’d be wrong to think that this pet isn’t an animal with teeth. So there you are – Blondie, an album of songs in itself.


The band that became Queen was originally called Smile. Based in London in 1969, Smile consisted of guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Deacon, with Tim Staffell on base and lead vocals. Staffell left the group in 1970, to be replaced by Freddie Bulsara, who had decided to adopt the name Mercury. He also changed the band’s name to Queen.

Queen was a much better name than Smile, which is one dimensional. Smile is an expression of happiness. That’s about it. There is no sense of the Janus mask that would include an expression of sadness. By contrast, Queen glitters like a jewel with many facets. First there are the suggestions of operatic grandeur, a sense that this band is respectful, embodying traditional qualities of skill and competence. Symphony orchestras, choral choirs, pomp and circumstance can be found here. A listener is welcomed to the palace, where you will be received with the most impeccable of hospitality. And yet… Queen is a term that refers to homosexuality, to men who dress up as women, inhabiting a semi-secret world of sequins, and songs by Gloria Gaynor. Queen suggests both the establishment and a profound antiestablishment rebelliousness which allows us to escape from the rigid convention of the palace and head to a drag club. All of that is in Queen. The name is respectable and disreputable, rebellious and conventional, epic and self-deprecating. Queen is a Janus mask of contradiction rather than a simple smile. It welcomes the conventional and the marginalised. There is room for everyone in the palace of Queen.

Titles of Travel

On this journey through band names and song titles, it would be fitting to consider the theme of travel – a characteristic preoccupation of song writers. Songs have long acted as aids to travel. Tramping feet and the stroke of oars follow a steady rhythm. Songs once served a practical purpose in smoothing this rhythm, a process reminiscent of tuning an engine. There is, however, more to a song than providing a beat, just as there is more to a journey than getting to a destination. Consider Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. The real Highway 61 paved the way for Bob Dylan to follow his song writing dreams, running from the Canada/United States border, through Duluth – where Bob Dylan was born – and on down through America to New Orleans, one of the early homes of modern popular music. On the way, the road passes close to Memphis – where Elvis Presley lived at Graceland – and Clarksdale, birthplace of Muddy Waters. The Blues singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on Route 61 near Clarksdale. Clarksdale is also the place where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. This crossroads is a musical tourist attraction, commemorating a young Blues singer named Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have offered his soul to the devil at this spot, in return for musical ability.

Bob Dylan gets his camera and sets off to explore this long series of musical milestones. The crucial word in the title of Bob Dylan’s strange travelogue is “revisited”. Apart from the sense of going back on yourself, there is something odd about the word revisited when applied to a road stretching for 1,400 miles. We usually use a road to visit a particular place. Highway 61 is a place in itself, one long series of arrivals and departures in a world associated with music.

Highway 61 is the opposite of the Yellow Brick Road, as immortalised by L. Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is like one of those coloured lines at Victoria Station, existing for one purpose only – to guide a traveller unerringly to a destination, whether that’s the taxi rank or, in the case of Baum’s story, the Emerald City. It is interesting that when Elton John came to reference the Yellow Brick Road in the title of his massively successful album of 1973, it was to say goodbye to such a road. Highway 61 is notable for itself as much as for where it goes. The Beatles who named an album after a road, are known for crossing Abbey Road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, it seems that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than destinations. Think of the difference if Abba had called their Arrival album Arrived. Arrival is a process which continues. It involves marching bands and excitement. Arrived is something finished. Arrived is what happens when Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City and find it’s a sham.

It only takes a small detail to transform the mundane description of a journey into something musical. Consider the band Supertramp – a band with a great name when it comes to endless journeys. In 1979 they took a trip across the Atlantic on an airliner in the title of their album Breakfast in America. Breakfast in America suggests a long, trans-Atlantic night flight, while the detail of breakfast at the end of it suggests a brief pause before the journey continues on somewhere else. It is the beginning of the day after all, not the end. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America. And as we are in New York we could remember the vocal group Manhattan Transfer – taken from a novel by John Los Passos actually, but a great band name, suggesting a definite place which is only designed to move you on to another one.

A Final Journey – Street Legal by Bob Dylan

Street Legal is Bob Dylan’s eighteenth studio album, released in 1978. It peaked at number 11 in the Billboard Charts, the first time a Dylan studio album had not reached the top 10 since 1964. Though Street Legal might not be Bob Dylan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, I think it has one of the best names of any album ever made. This two word title is a poem in itself.

So let’s have a think about these two words, street legal, which refer to a vehicle licensed for normal road use, meeting various criteria related to equipment and safety. These criteria exclude more rarified or specialised vehicles – racing cars, off-road dune buggies, and so on. There is a sense of compromise as Dylan sets out on the road to meet his audience. He has to make sure his lights and indicators are in order. Are his rear view mirrors correctly positioned? Does he have his road tax and MOT documents up to date? He’ll need those if he’s visiting people like me in England. I know this does not sound glamorous or exciting. Something certainly seems to be lost when you decide to step out of a racing car into, say, a Hyundai i10.

However, as you make that compromise, a huge new world opens up. You’re not racing pointlessly around a tiny track anymore, or jumping over the same old sand dunes. With your indicators and side lights in good working order, a whole new vista opens up. You are now free to follow the road wherever it may lead. This is a vista revealed by the ordinary rather than the special. You don’t have to be a rock star to make this journey. In fact rock stars risk getting left behind, at an exclusive golf club perhaps, riding in a golf cart, which like a racing car or dune buggy, is not street legal.

An album is a communication, a reaching out. It takes a journey from one person to another in a street legal vehicle. When I think of Street Legal, I think of something like Van Gogh’s portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, an ordinary fellow in an unremarkable job. He sits there, unassuming in his bushy beard, dark, buttoned coat, and his station master’s hat with “Postes” in gold lettering across the front. No one in 1888 could assist in communication between people more than an ordinary postman. The same is true of Bob Dylan in his Street Legal vehicle in 1978.

Manhattan Transfer by John Los Passos – The Dawn of Chaos Theory

Manhattan Transfer is a novel by John Los Passos published in 1925 and much admired at the time by D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. It describes life in New York, from the 1890s to the 1920s. This is not a single story, but an intermingling of dozens of narratives, seen from the point of view of a wide range of characters – wealthy college drop outs, lawyers on their way up, business men on their way down, tramps, actresses, journalists who have a vague idea to quit journalism and write a great novel. Some characters develop across the entire book, others only appear for a few lines. Point of view can shift from paragraph to paragraph.

Although this might sound potentially confusing and difficult to engage with, that was not my experience. The book worked as a whole, carrying me along so powerfully that I might as well have fallen into the swirling currents of the Hudson. I suppose this is because, amongst all the chopping and changing, there is a steady central character, and that is New York itself, portrayed in great descriptive passages. Some of the most vivid writing is reserved for New York at dawn, the beauty of early morning coinciding with many crises and turning points. The sunrise sums up the nature of the city, which has a machine-like relentlessness of operation, running on regardless of the people living there, which it often seems to use as fuel. And yet, whether dawn is bright and summery or cold and wintery, it always has an airy, ethereal, beauty, and is never the same twice.

Now, this next bit might not seem very literary, but I’m going to risk getting scientific for a moment. Bear with me. Recently I happened to be reading about this thing in Chaos Theory called ‘emergence’. Emergence is when a system changes according to the individual actions of its constituent parts adapting to circumstances without centralised goals, plans or coordination. These systems exhibit chaos and unpredictability in their development. However, despite their lack of plan, emergent systems tend to become efficient, complex and highly adapted over time. Examples of emergent systems include capitalist economies, societies, cultures, and, of course, cities – like New York. No one person or organisation set out to make New York as it now is, and yet here it is, a vast, almost mathematical grid of streets. Emergent systems are random and also highly ordered. I hesitate to stray into areas I don’t really know much about, with the associated risk of embarrassment; but I’m going to just put out there some interesting parallels between an account of the development of a modern city written in the 1920s, and aspects of a theory of complex systems devised by Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.

Whether Chaos Theory is relevant or not, there is a very modern feel to Manhattan Transfer, as remarked upon by the book’s eminent early admirers. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking story, with some beautiful descriptive writing.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library is a kind of philosophical fantasy, set in a half-way house between life and death. This place takes the form of a library where a troubled young woman called Nora Seed gets to look at all the lives she might have led if she had made different decisions.

To read a book is often to experience a different life, and I think it’s always better to see the good things about a book rather than look for negatives. This is also the message of The Midnight Library. So we seem to be off to a good start. Stretching for the positives, I did think that to some degree The Midnight Library found a version of Groundhog Day wisdom – taking the one life you have and seeing it in a better way. The subject of the story is interesting and gets you thinking.

But I have to admit there were aspects of this book I did not enjoy. Whereas Groundhog Day has a neat and charming central concept based on recognisable daily routine, the metaphor of The Midnight Library is a convoluted mishmash of quantum physics and parallel universes, no less. Basing your fictional universe on something like quantum physics is a bit like basing it on religion, something so abstruse as to be unchallengeable. You just have to trust in the author’s higher power. A simple reader like myself can hardly object to something he doesn’t understand. Well, respectfully, I would like to object. I do wonder how much a fiction author can really know about the outer reaches of physics. In one of the various lives lived via the library, Nora finds herself in a study where a few books on popular science are described as sitting on a shelf. Personally I think those books are somewhat reflective of the scientific knowledge in The Midnight Library. I’ve read a few popular science books too, including A Brief History of Time – thank you – but I don’t think that would qualify me to start getting metaphorical with quantum physics. And although I don’t know much about the subject, I do feel that whatever the universe is about at the quantum level, it probably doesn’t involve giving people lots of lifestyle options. That just didn’t make sense to me. It came over as a strained plot device.

The retrospective imagining of different possibilities was a good premise for a story. We can all identify with someone looking back over their life and imagining how things might have gone with different choices. But all the complicated underpinning just lost me. It would have been much better without it.

I suppose, there is also my personal feeling that life isn’t an endless series of choices leading in countless directions. Yes there have been turning points in my life where things could have gone this way or that, but the idea that I could have infinite other lives by making different decisions just doesn’t seem reasonable. For a start if I were to be a specialist in Latin ballroom dancing, or a pilot in an aerobatic display team, then I would have to be a totally different person with hips that move and eyes that aren’t short sighted. I recall reading Tolstoy’s War And Peace in a confused period after university, when it was difficult to know which way to go. War And Peace is a long study of peoples’ ability – or lack thereof – to make decisions about the direction of their lives. Tolstoy portrayed human choices as in some way fated. Perhaps that influenced me at a crucial moment, and informed the rather laid back view I have had of choices ever since.

This book wasn’t for me. Physics might be about objective truth, but fiction is about ringing true, which is a bit different, more subtle, and more prone to individual experience. So if it worked for you I’m glad, because it is always better to enjoy a book. But it didn’t work for me.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson- You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories by Sherwood Anderson. Published in 1919, all the stories are set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio, based apparently on Clyde, Ohio where Andersen grew up. Although the stories feature a range of characters – farmhands, troubled school teachers, clergymen tortured by guilty lust, for example – the book as a whole is loosely centred on George Willard, a young journalist.

This is an unusual book, especially for its time. The writing is economical and straight-forward, when most authors were taking a wordier approach. There is very little plot, more the describing of atmospheres and psychological states, corresponding with periods of crisis or turning points in people’s lives. The linked short story structure was innovative.

The whole book seems to be about transitions rather than neat and tidy endings or beginnings. Winesburg stands part way between a rural past and an urban future. People look for definite things to believe in, but always end up with partial truths. The stories tend to peter out rather than concluding with some definite point. The railway is mentioned constantly. People go somewhere else before coming back again. And yet for all this sense of transition, Winesburg seems to be a place that is very difficult to leave.

The book culminates with George Willard, the young journalist, deciding to escape. He gets on a train at the station, determined to start a new life elsewhere. But as he does so there are indications that escape will be more difficult than he imagines. George may think he is leaving, but from the point of view of Tom Little, conductor on George’s train, Winesburg’s physical borders are fuzzy to say the least. Tom spends his working life in a kind of elongated ‘town’ which, starting with Winesburg, is made up of all the places along the track.

He knows the people in the towns along his railroad better than a city man knows the people in his apartment building.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I found myself thinking of the surreal 1960s TV show The Prisoner, where a British secret agent finds himself trapped in a mysterious seaside village. Big white balloons keep thwarting his escape attempts. Winesburg is tiny, but somehow, no matter how far you go, you can’t seem to get away from it. Some of the stories show Winesburg as beautiful, others as ugly, cold and bleak. There was the same ambivalent feeling in The Prisoner, where the mysterious village is deeply unsettling and also charmingly picturesque. Recalling the series, I can imagine that instead of getting stressed out trying to escape, I might settle down in one of the colourful apartments with a word processor and a pile of good books, one of which could be Winesburg, Ohio. Anyhow, I digress. The fact that I digress about a 1960s sci-fi television show, indicates the strangely modern nature of this selection of stories.

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris – A Civil War Re-enactment

In the royalist ranks at a 2008 recreation of 1648’s Battle of Maidstone

In 1642, civil war broke out in England. King Charles I and forces loyal to him, faced a rebellion led by Puritan religious fundamentalists. The rebels captured and beheaded Charles I in 1649. His son, Charlies II, continued the fight for two more years, before fleeing into exile. Oliver Cromwell then established his Protectorate, which endured, rather shakily, until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Robert Harris sets his historical novel, Act of Oblivion, in the aftermath of these events. With Charles II back on the throne, his government passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, which issued a general pardon to anyone who had fought against the royalists. However, a small group of people were exempt from the Act, notably anyone who had signed the death warrant of Charles I. These ‘regicides’ were to be tracked down and executed. Some were captured immediately, others handed themselves in, hoping in vain for clemency, while a third group went on the run. Act of Oblivion is an imaginative reconstruction of the lives of regicides Edward Whalley and William Goffe, who spent years evading capture in the American colonies.

In some ways the relationship between this book and actual history is loose to say the least. The character around which the story revolves, Richard Naylor, fanatical regicide hunter in-chief, never existed, although someone like him might have done. But before we get too purist, it’s worth remembering that creating any kind of historical narrative requires choosing some events and not others, which inevitably denies the messy nature of what actually happened. You could say that Richard Naylor is a personification of this artificial shaping process, a fictional centre around which historical events can be arranged.

Another typical way to arrange history is to choose events likely to resonate with present-day readers. In this case, potential readers live in a world where national division has increased in various major countries, and where extremists have become more prominent. The Civil War, it goes without saying, was another time of national division and extremism.

So a story playing fast and loose with history, actually tells us much about how history gets written. Richard Naylor as an artificial shaping device, lurks in every history book, whether he is acknowledged or not. And as for the resonance of the chosen subject for contemporary readers, this book offers its audience the chance to explore the complexities of conflict and fanaticism at one remove. Act of Oblivion makes it clear that divisions, of even the most vicious nature, hide a reality where enemies have more in common than they realise. Robert Harris doesn’t have to make up facts about people on opposing sides in the Civil War being friends, or that moderation and zealotry were present in both the rebel and royalist camps. Overall, this compelling historical story is truthful about the contradictory nature of human relationships, rather than about the exact nature of events, which we can never fully know anyway. That’s what makes this a good novel, rather than a dodgy history book

The Wings Of The Dove, By Henry James – Hiding in Respectabilty

Reading a couple of novels by Henry James recently – The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors – I’ve been trying to work out exactly what I think about his books. They are fascinating, often beautiful, but massive and hard work to read. They must have been hard work to write. What exactly drove him to do it? A better question might be – why did Henry James write in the way he did, using that ornate, layered style, which obscures as much as it reveals? Was it affectation? Was something else going on?

I did some background reading. Some biographers, like Lyndall Gordon, prevaricate, but others, Kosofsky Sedgwick for example, suggest that James was almost certainly gay, which during his lifetime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a serious crime. Sedgwick wonders if this contributed to the obscurity in James’s writing. It certainly makes sense of the focus, in his most famous books, on hidden relationships. There’s the affair in The Golden Bowl between Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, and the secret liaison between Chad and Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors.

And then there’s The Wings of the Dove, which I found myself thinking about in terms of hidden relationships. Writing it, James was probably in the position of having to hide part of himself. The risks were frightening and no one was safe. Not long before The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902, Oscar Wilde’s status as a massively successful playwright, could not protect him from prison, from which he emerged with his health ruined, his wealth gone, fit enough only to sit around in Parisian pavement cafes.

Ironically, given all this, the first part of The Wings of the Dove seems to present a surprisingly positive picture of people united wherever and whoever they are. This hopeful first section begins in early twentieth century London, Kate Croy has lost her parents. Her mother is dead, and her father has been lost to drink. Kate finds herself in the guardianship of wealthy Aunt Maud, who makes it her mission to marry off her charge to the most eligible bachelor she knows, Lord Mark. Unhelpfully, Kate has secretly fallen in love with Merton Densher, a clever chap – a writer of all things – who works on a newspaper and has none of Lord Mark’s cachet. He gets posted to America soon after he and Kate declare their inconvenient, and concealed, love for each other. Meanwhile, in America, a young woman called Milly Theale, has inherited great wealth, various maladies having carried away all the other members of her rich family. Not knowing what to do with herself, she decides to take a trip to Europe with an older companion, a widow called Susan Shepherd. And who should Milly meet and befriend before she travels to Europe, but Merton Densher. This sets the scene for travels in a world sometimes portrayed as a vast place in which it’s easy to get lost, on other occasions appearing as that kind of ‘small world’ where you might unexpectedly bump into someone you know. One minute we might see Milly sitting on an Alpine cliff edge staring into an endless abyss, the next she’s in London, discovering that Aunt Maud and Susan Shepherd were at school together. Milly and Kate become close friends, the young American quickly accepted as ‘one of us’. Milly even discovers that she has a spooky likeness to a portrait of a long lost girl in the family of Lord Mark, which hangs in his ancestral home. You might say the first half of the book is about the hidden closeness of the human family.

Then we get to the second part, set in a dramatically depicted Venice, where Milly becomes mortally ill. The feeling changes. Kate cooks up a scheme for Densher to get close to Milly, partly to console her during her illness, partly in the hope that some inheritance might come Densher’s way, allowing the secretly engaged couple to marry. Kate is forced into this deception by a society that values a feckless lord far above a clever, down-to-earth, working writer. Kate pretends to be distant from Densher in a ruse to be close to him. Densher is close to Milly, while he is secretly engaged to Kate. It’s very dark and twisty. If the first half of the book was about the hidden closeness of the human family, the second half is about the deceptions that hide beneath the surface of relationships.

Henry James describes all this in his ornate style of long sentences, with sub and sub-sub clauses. Ironically the writer depicted in the book is someone who you don’t feel would write in this way. Merton Densher is uncomfortable with stuffy tradition. There is a kind of dark humour in watching a straightforward chap caught up in both labyrinthine paragraphs and the lies they describe. Caught in these toils, Densher struggles to work out if he has behaved well or badly. Henry James is considered a modern, forward-looking writer in the sense that values are unstable in his books, rather than tending to the religiously-centred certainties of previous centuries. Perhaps he was helped to this position by seeing people he admired, by seeing himself, judged by society, as criminal. Henry James wrote in a style of heightened respectability, when ironically, his writing expressed a sense that respectability is precarious and fragile. Judgements of value have no firm basis, like a golden bowl that might appear expensive, only to turn out, on closer examination, to be a piece of glitzy junk.

The way people treat each other is a tragedy really, but despite the dark second part of The Wings of the Dove, the hopeful first part is still there, depicting a human family linking the most far-flung of people. Reading Henry James’s books is a bit like being part of that family, sitting down to Christmas dinner with a posh uncle who might talk too much, but is fascinating nevertheless. I, for one, am very glad he was invited.

The Trees By Percival Everett

The Trees by Percival Everett, shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is about the history of lynching and racist violence in America. The book imagines an ever-widening pattern of retribution for past atrocities. Trouble starts in the town of Money, Mississippi, investigated first by local law enforcement, then by Mississippi state police, finally by the FBI.

This sounds like tough subject-matter, and it is. But unexpectedly the book is very funny. Some of the dialogue, particularly amongst the denizens of Money, is hilarious. This incongruity is an introduction to the way the book challenges categories.

For example, there are categories of race, where bitter divides become increasingly meaningless:

Braden looked back at Dixie. “I heard tell that Dixie got a drop in her.”

“We all got a drop in us, you stupid peckerwood.”

Since humanity first evolved in Africa, this is undeniably true.

The trees of the book’s title are a symbol of lynching, in the sense that they were the site of these dreadful events. But trees also have very different connotations. The book uses the image of family trees to describe tangled patterns of relation that blur all kinds of apparent division, between black, white, rural racist, urban sophisticate, or whatever it might be. Family trees don’t suggest violent division so much as the links between us all.

What if a group sets out to avenge the awful behaviour of racists of the past, through retribution visited on their children or relatives? No doubt some of those relatives are just as bad as their lynching forebears, their true nature barely held in check. But family trees make it difficult to know where the limits of retribution should lie. Would you call a halt at grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or cousins three times removed? Where along the six degrees of separation does separation become wide enough? If retribution kept following family trees along every branch, would it end up coming back to the people who were abused in the first place? A hidden, mixed parentage of some of the characters, and the book’s shocking denouement, suggests this would be the case.

Actually the idea of a family tree could even link an entertaining, subtle, funny novel, to a highly sobering, uncompromising book about human relationships. The overall result is The Trees – funny, deadly serious, straightforward in its writing, highly sophisticated in its thematic structure, unsparing and humane.

The Ambassadors, By Henry James – A Symbol Of Home In A Foreign Land

An ambassador is a representative of home in a foreign country. The ambassador in this book is Lambert Strether, despatched by wealthy Mrs Newcome of Woollett, Massachusetts to track down her son Chad, whose year off in Paris, seems to have turned into a prolonged, and perhaps corrupting, residence. Mrs Newcome wants Chad to come back and face his responsibilities managing the family company. What the company produces is not entirely clear. It’s some kind of extremely mundane item, the nature of which Strether is hesitant to reveal. The ‘urinal cakes’ which made the fortune of Niles Crane’s social-climbing wife Maris, in Frasier come to mind. Anyway, if Strether can get Chad to return home to supervise continued profitable ‘urinal cake’ manufacture, the ambassador’s reward will be marriage to Mrs Newcombe.

Strether is at a difficult point in his life, in his mid 50s, a widower who has also lost his only son. His buttoned-down personality is a product of his background in wealthy, small-town America. Now, he finds himself in cosmopolitan Paris, trying to fulfil his mission with Chad, which turns out to be a lot more complicated than he bargained for. In the company of European friends, it transpires that Chad has not been corrupted, but improved. Strether comes to see that dragging the young man back to Woollett might not do him, or the people he has met, any favours. So what’s to be done? Helping him with this tricky question is a woman he met on the ship coming over, Maria Gostrey, and an old friend called Waymarsh. There is something relevant in the names of Strether’s companions – Gostrey, which is very close to ‘go astray’ – and Waymarsh, with its suggestion of a treacherous route through marshes on a misty evening. Maria Gostrey personifies the joy of wandering off the well-worn path, while Waymarsh is there to warn of the dangers.

Paris often serves as an enigmatic symbol of freedom for Americans. From Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Netflix’s Emily in Paris, Americans visit Paris to loosen up. The Ambassadors predates all these other American trips to the City of Light. It is true that Strether’s reach for Parisian freedom is nothing like Henry Miller’s in Tropic of Cancer. There are no tumultuous relationships with wild Russian aristocratic women, pursued in apartments where no housework gets done. Strether’s hotel suite is very tidy, and his wild behaviour is limited to eating tomato omelettes beside the Seine with charming lady companions, or – in a particularly beautiful section – taking a day-trip in the countryside near Paris. Nevertheless, within the tight confines of his life, I felt the joy of Strether’s unfamiliar liberty.

This book took me a long time to read. The prose is dense, the sentences long. I do have a tendency to try and get through a book so I can get on to the next one. With The Ambassadors I relaxed. When the library loan period elapsed, I renewed. Hanging around in early twentieth-century Paris, in a peaceful spring and summer before world wars, was lovely. If you think about it, any good book is ambassadorial. There has to be something unfamiliar and foreign about the book’s territory to tempt you to explore: and there has to be a feeling of home within its pages, to recognise and resonate with. You open a book hoping for all kinds of new experiences, and then head for the nearest embassy, or British bar or shop selling Heinz Baked Beans, or whatever it is that reminds you of your particular home. In this sense The Ambassadors is the perfect book. I enjoyed all aspects of it – from the exciting sense of travelling to new places, to the reassuring sense of recognising experience – that experience of the competing attractions of risk and security, the new and the old, which we all face in one way or another. This is the kind of book that takes you away, or brings you home, depending on your needs. In reality we need both. In providing both in such a neat diplomatic package, The Ambassadors is now one of my favourite novels.

Chums By Simon Kuper – How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK

In early 1983, as a diffident grammar school boy, I sat in a centuries old sitting room, beside a burbling open fire, enduring an interview for a place to study English at Oriel College, Oxford. I was muttering something about Shakespeare.

“You talk of Anthony and Cleopatra in a detached manner, Mr Jones,” said the languid interviewer. “Tell me, would you die for love?”

I didn’t get in.

At this point my fate diverged from that of the people who populate the pages of Chums, young men and women, mostly men, who attended Oxford in the 1980s and then went on to top jobs in government. Author, Simon Kuper, who was an Oxford undergraduate at that time, describes the background of these people, and how their university years influenced later careers.

The picture portrayed is not a pretty one. In many ways what happened to those youngsters during the 1980s haunts us now in the 2020s.

First, there’s the interesting historical background of the time, which tended to push forward entitled youths from a privileged background. The 1980s marked a reversal of the general trend to a more egalitarian society, which had been gathering pace from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1979, British income inequality reached its lowest point ever recorded. Then Margaret Thatcher came along. Following the economic privations of the 70s, inequality widened again, the upper classes regained confidence, and started indulging in romantic fantasies about a lost Britain. Fittingly, a 1981 television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was very popular. Young Jacob Rees Mogg, who was to enter Oxford’s Trinity College in the late 80s, even took to dressing up as an Edwardian gentleman.

This was the atmosphere into which Etonian Boris Johnson arrived at Oxford in 1983, the same year I was there for my interview. After getting accepted, Johnson and others like him spent their university years honing peculiarly British political skills, which involved treating politics as a game. The Oxford Union debating society is set up like the House of Commons chamber, though Union debates never result in real policies with real consequences. When not fantasy debating, the youngsters would have fun trying to get themselves elected to the few administrative positions on offer at the Union.

Many then took the idea of politics as a game into their subsequent parliamentary careers. Some commentators, like the academic George Steiner for example, feel that historically, a traditional lack of political seriousness has acted in a positive way, as a protection against extremism in Britain. On the other hand a lack of seriousness, and often basic administrative competence, can have disastrous consequences when something like a pandemic comes along. Then it is people who learnt their trade many years before amongst jolly japes of the Oxford Union, who have to coordinate a complex, society-wide response.

And that’s the overriding feeling of Chums – of people who have led protected lives, bringing about very painful and real consequences through their carelessness.

From a personal point of view, I think back to that interview and that rejection. The young men and women who got through tended to see themselves as chosen. Ironically, the story of Chums shows people caught up in the patterns of their time. They are not special – they are just living the lives that their history makes for them. And the special place they entered – well that’s riven by a constantly churning sense of who’s in or out. When those Oxford boys grew up, one set – Johnson, Gove and Cummings – supported leaving the EU, primarily as a means of taking revenge on another set – David Cameron’s remain Oxford boys, for a perceived sense of exclusion from the golden circle. The leavers, using their own frustrations as a starting point, played on that too common feeling amongst people in general that someone else has the power and prestige. Game players like Boris Johnson, imbued with fantasy visions of Britain’s past, messed around with the fire of nationalist sentiment, simply to further their ridiculous desire to climb the greasy pole as an end in itself. It was all part of a game, which had disastrous real world consequences, when a system of international cooperation which, as Kuper points out, had brought unprecedented prosperity to Britain, was torn apart.

There’s nothing very golden about the golden circle of the British establishment. I don’t know if it even exists when most of those in it seem to act out of a bitterness that they are supposedly excluded. That’s how I felt getting to the end of Chums. As I have long suspected, thinking in terms of whether you are in or out is not healthy. You are where you are, and it’s best to make that the place where you are meant to be.