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.

Two Truths Are Told – James Comey’s Higher Loyalty

James Comey is clearly someone who values truth and transparency. Looking through the window of his book, we witness a meeting in the Oval Office during the George W. Bush presidency. Sitting there at the very centre of American government, amongst a group of ordinary people trying to figure things out, Comey realises that this is all there is. The implied question arising is one that has come up repeatedly down the ages – surely the last word in authority shouldn’t lie with people like us.

The search for leadership, for guidance in life, has shaped human society. With human judgement so imperfect, it’s not surprising that the idea of supernatural leadership evolved. The Romans considered their leaders as gods. When this illusion proved impossible to maintain, divine intervention continued in the sense that leaders were appointed by God. Eventually that idea also failed to withstand scrutiny. Parliamentary rebels beheaded the “divinely appointed” English king, Charles I in 1649, and the rise of secular government began. The English political settlement enshrining this type of civil governance in law – the Bill of Rights of 1689 – was a major influence on the writing of the Constitution of the United States.

However, even after all this time, the desire for leadership beyond that offered by flawed humanity has not gone away.

The title of James Comey’s book suggests a search for a new higher authority, acceptable to the modern world. He finds this in two things – firstly in the accumulated, dispassionate wisdom which we call the law, and secondly in a regard for truth. Other people in America it seems, have expressed a nostalgia for divine certainty by electing a president who is deluded and dishonest enough to say he has all the answers. A Higher Truth documents a collision between these two different efforts to find a way back to reliable leadership. A reader will hopefully come out on the side of the rule of law and adherence to truth. James Comey’s book is honest, moving and could easily serve as a reference on effective leadership.

There is however, one “critical” point I would like to make. This is given in the spirit of a contribution to a debate – responding to the respect for varied opinion which is so obvious in the pages of A Higher Truth. There is a contradiction in this account which is not fully explored. America idolises the individual as the repository of moral good. James Comey himself does this. He refers to a time at college which required a strong individual to stand up to the harassment of an unpopular student. Comey bitterly regrets that even though he suffered serious bullying at school, he wasn’t able to be that person. Comey sees that he should have followed the advice drummed into him by his parents. He should have stood up to the group and followed his own moral compass. America admires this idea of the maverick. Now I enjoy Die Hard movies as much as anyone, and I admire people who stand up to a group behaving badly, but the glorification of the maverick hero, taken to an unwise extreme, played a significant role in the selection of a totally unsuitable president in 2016.

I am British, which is a different perspective. Britain with its ancient institutions and sometimes stuffy ways tends to be more Shakespeare than John McLean in its outlook. Shakespeare, who Comey quotes early in A Higher Truth, would not be a natural writer of Die Hard movies. His political mavericks – Macbeth for example – tend to cause trouble rather than restore justice. I read A Higher Truth and wondered how an American author could see the individual as the last word in moral judgement, and then also present government institutions as guarding against rogue modern day Macbeths. Perhaps America needs to come to terms with the fact that its maverick myth, forged during difficult pioneering times, might not be so relevant anymore. As I say, the American veneration of the maverick individual contributed to the election of Donald Trump. It also contributes, incidentally, to the American habit of individuals carrying guns. I don’t think A Higher Loyalty really explored the irony of a thoughtful author defending America’s government institutions while also buying into the cult of individuality which threatens them. If we go back to the bullying at college episode, we recall that this was presented as a personal lapse. You could equally say it was an institutional failure, since Comey’s own description shows the college thoughtlessly creating an isolated, unsupervised dormitory, where bullying was more likely. It’s the same on a larger scale – a shooting is a personal failing on the part of someone with a gun, and an institutional failure on the part of a society which allows easy access to guns.

The balance of the individual and the group is always a shifting one. The debate continues, and James Comey is clearly a man who enjoys a debate in its finest sense, as a sharing of viewpoints so that we all see the world in a better way. I applaud his book.

Night of the Literary Dead

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo initially struck me as an odd, unclassifiable book. It starts out as a kind of bizarre historical fiction, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son William kicking off a story set in a surreal half way house between life and death. Various individuals, unwilling to move on from their lives, inhabit the bardo, a word sometimes used in Buddhism to describe a transitional state between death and rebirth. The sense of oddness is reinforced by an unusual narrative style, where a myriad of narrators tell the story with credits given in the manner of a history text book.

Within the first twenty pages, however, I started to experience a nagging sense of familiarity. By about half way through, I realised Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t so unidentifiable after all. It was, for all intents and purposes, a zombie story. Even though the Bardo’s inhabitants weren’t portrayed in an overt way as typical zombies, they are the undead, and seemed to have a place in a long tradition, stretching from ancient folklore, through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, numerous stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and the blind walking dead of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Emerging from all that, the zombie story became a place where writers could explore anxieties related to science, industrialisation, globalisation.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Lincoln in one section thinks of his lost son as an intricate machine, and wonders about the nature of the magical spark which allowed him to live. Other characters populating the precincts of the undead seem trapped in the mechanical patterns of their past lives. A shop keeper appears stuck in the routine of his lost working day, as does a musician, a professor and an overzealous soldier. Former slaves seem to either live out their submission endlessly; or former slaves and former white bigots are condemned to continue their fight endlessly.

The portrayal of three former clubmen, in particular, shows how difficult it is to stop your life settling into an enervating pattern. These jolly bachelors, who lost their lives as a result of silly pranks, appear trapped in their fixed determination never to be tied down to any obligation at all.

We are clearly in zombie story territory here, exploring the complex business of staying alive via a story set amongst characters who are neither alive nor dead. The writing has a very organic quality, ethereal at times in portraying earthly beauty, then plumbing the depths of physical degradation. This is set against that dry sense of quoting each narrator as if they are a reference in a text book. It all makes for an interesting, intellectual twist on the zombie tale. Even intellectual readers need zombies it seems. Perhaps with their quotes, references and essays, the struggle to stay vibrant and alive is especially relevant to the intellectuals. I’m reminded of the literature professor in Educating Rita, who found hairdresser Rita a breath of fresh air, even as Rita herself tried to escape the boredom of her humdrum life and her taste in low brow novels.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes the low brow zombie genre and turns it into a strange, high brow novel. It’s a bit like an unfulfilled Professor Frank Bryant meeting an unfulfilled Rita, the two of them finding mutual benefit.

Lost in the Middle


The first edition of A Bend in the River, published in 1979

A Bend in the River starts in the childhood of Salim, our narrator. He is an African of Indian origin, living on Africa’s east coast – except this part of the continent can’t really be described as Africa:

“AFRICA WAS MY HOME, had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean.”

When civil unrest threatens, Salim heads into the interior to take up a business opportunity offered by a family friend. This is a shop selling bits of everything in a town beside a river in an unnamed central African country. Salim’s town is at the heart of both country and continent, but – in an irony characteristic of the book – seems very much a marginalised place. Despite the town’s central location, in terms of the river it lies right at the end of navigation, as far up stream as a boat can reach. The east coast might be not truly African, but Salim’s town in the middle is not truly African either. It’s a peripheral place, with a turbulent population riven by all kinds of allegiances. This situation is reflected in the real world. Think of the great cities of America, for example, and you’ll see that the top two – New York and Los Angeles – are ports on the coast, where there is the greatest interchange with other places. America’s geographical centre is in rural Kansas, close to the town of Lebanon, with a population of just over 200.

Pondering on the book after I’d finished it, I thought about a line in a Lindisfarne song about another town by a river:

“The fog on the Tyne is all mine.”

There’s a passage in A Bend in the River involving river mist.

“In the darkness of river and forest you could be sure only of what you could see –and even on a moonlight night you couldn’t see much. When you made a noise –dipped a paddle in the water –you heard yourself as though you were another person. The river and the forest were like presences, and much more powerful than you. You felt unprotected, an intruder. In the daylight –though the colours could be very pale and ghostly, with the heat mist at times suggesting a colder climate –you could imagine the town being rebuilt and spreading.”

The town is little more than a fleeting daydream. People think they own the fog, but the fog belongs to no one – or it belongs to everyone if you wish to look at things from a warmer perspective. Admittedly, a warmer perspective is not very evident in A Bend in the River.

Perhaps a warmer perspective comes from the sense that finishing the book, people might not be so quick to differentiate insiders from outsiders, people who belong from those who don’t. With the centre in the same place as the periphery, with home presented as such a nebulous concept, we might ironically become more welcoming and tolerant.

Arriving at Highway 61

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.  Does the destination really match up to expectations? Does focusing too much on a goal take away from appreciating what we see on the way to it? The wisdom that comes from experiencing the conflicting emotions of a journey seems to have leaked into songwriting, making it much more than a utilitarian device to help coordinate a team on the move, or in modern terms, to help motivate an exercise class.

So, as part of my series of articles on album titles as effective writing, let’s have a look at some travelling album titles. First, there is 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 that road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, the story of selling his soul to the devil might be a lot of nonsense, but it shows that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than highways reaching the Emerald City. Abba called their most successful album Arrival. Think of the difference if they had called it 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 something of 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. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America.

Judging by the album cover, Supertramp seem to be flying into New York. So, taking a detour via some individual song titles, what does the song title New York New York tell us about getting to the big city? That song could have been called New York. The repetition of the name makes it into a song title, creating a sense of dreaminess, as though someone out in the sticks is dreaming of getting to New York; or is reminiscing about good times once enjoyed there. Either way, New York New York is less of a place to get to, more a vision to dream about.

After breakfast we could head off into America, which puts me in mind of the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ from the American Beauty album. The Grateful Dead could have called their song Trucking, but dropping the final g in favour of an inverted comma suggests a word repeated frequently enough for abbreviation to creep in. In this way, Truckin’ suggests the routine slog of driving. This is not trucking from one place to another, this is truckin’ without end.

We might not be able to reach the end, but perhaps we can take a break from the trip with the Eagles at the Hotel California. This musical hotel has a name which suggests it encompasses the entire state through which you drive, like a visit to Highway 61, where the journey and destination are the same.

This is the contradictory nature of musical travel – offering a Ticket to Ride, which refers both to the journey taken, and the destination, which, according to Paul McCartney was the town of Rhyde on the Isle of Wight. Music is a transport of emotion, the sort of transport that can move people even if they stay in the same place.


A Good Book for a Small Angry Earth

Before I start this review, I just want to tell you about the crew of HMS Victory, the flagship of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This ship, so strongly associated with English nationalism, had a multinational crew. According to Jane’s Naval History, the crew included – 441 English, 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 22 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 French, 3 Norwegian, 3 Germans, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Swiss, 2 Channel Islanders, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 1 Russian, 1 African, 1 Manxman, and 9 men from the West Indies.

This is all by way of introduction to the crew of spaceship Wanderer, whose fortunes we follow in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A similarly mixed bunch, they crew a ship making worm hole tunnels through a universe populated by different species with conflicting opinions and customs. How all these life forms get along together is the main theme of the book.

We see, for example, the future of nationalism in characters who insist on maintaining the pure identity of particular life forms. These people seem condemned to pursue a mirage. To make this point, the story includes cloned individuals who are genetically identical, but still hate each other. There is also an interesting character formed by a host creature and a kind of parasitic virus. The viral infection confers special powers on its host at the cost of a dramatically shortened life span. The host makes persuasive arguments for this strange viral alliance, telling worried human colleagues that vital cellular elements of the human body are the result of ancient infections, incorporated into its genetic makeup. It seems that individuals themselves are a kind of cellular community trying to get along. Getting along with life different to yourself seems a basic requirement of living. It is pointless trying to isolate yourself within a single identity.

Then you run into contradictions. Accepting differences might be important, until you get to the point where acceptance becomes so pervasive that there may as well be no differences. The host of the virus might be correct about foreign cells incorporated into human bodies, but the creature is slowly dying as a result of its alliance. There is too much acceptance, too much staring out of windows, which this creature does a lot. The virus is too close to its host, so much so that the individual is referred to as “they”. It’s like one of those couples who are so into each other that they give up all their friends and it gets a bit unhealthy. Continuing with the human body parallels, some diseases corrupt body cells to make them all the same, which is of course disastrous.

Variety might cause disorder but it’s a better type of disorder to that caused by those of a totalitarian bent who seek uniformity. It’s a difficult contradiction, explored with great subtlety.

So thematically I thought this book was excellent. It really had its heart in the right place and, like all good sci-fi, said something important about the here and now. Reluctantly, I do also have to say that the quality of the writing was sometimes patchy. There was a fair amount of telling rather than showing, particularly in the middle of the book. At one point we met a new character, only for a description of their background to pop up out of nowhere, as though the author’s character notes had just been slotted in. There was also an irritating reliance on exclamation marks in some of the dialogue. By the end, however, I had forgiven all this. The wonderful sci-fi writer Douglas Adams used lots of adverbs – those things which new writers are told to avoid – but no one really holds it against him. In the end, for me, the same applies here.

Muddling Along With Les Miserables

Queen’s Theatre, February 14th 2018

We live in strange times as far as morality is concerned. People in America were willing to ignore all kinds of sleazy behaviour when they elected their president. On the other hand there is a definite hardening of lines with regard to behaviour generally.

After seeing Les Miserables recently, I was reminded how this spectacularly successful musical also portrays a world of conflicting moral extremes. There are appalling characters such as inn keeper Thénardier, who cheats his customers and gropes his staff. On the other hand there is Inspector Javert whose determination to follow the letter of the law, results in just as much misery and injustice as the behaviour of Thénardier. One side of the moral equation is a reflection of the other. The bulk of the story then focuses on people who try to get along in the grey area between extremes. Jean Valjean, the central character, spends nineteen years in forced labour – punishment for stealing a loaf of bread in a time of desperate poverty. On release he breaks his parole and goes on the run, eventually getting his life together and becoming a respected town mayor. As mayor he meets a character similar to himself, a young woman named Fantine, forced into prostitution in an effort to support her daughter. Like Valjean, this young woman is technically a criminal, even though we see the virtue of her struggle.

Inevitably, a group of students and radicals stage a rebellion against their unjust society. The rebels are sworn enemies of the government. However, the revolutionary views of rebel leader Enjolras mirror that of Inspector Javert – in the sense that they both hold to their principles regardless of circumstance. And while rebels and government inspectors are similar in their extremism, as usual we have ordinary people in between. Valjean joins the rebels on their makeshift barricade, raising initial suspicion, since he is an establishment figure as far as the youngsters are concerned. A student named Marius, is also in a somewhat ambiguous position. He has just fallen in love, a complication which the cause of revolution has no time for.

Following a government attack on the barricade, Valjean manages to carry an injured Marius to safety. Valjean lives long enough to see the young man he saved married to Cosette, the daughter for whom Fantine sacrificed everything.

At the end of the play there seems to be a place in heaven for everyone, which sort of makes sense in light of the suggestion that virtue and villainy are closer to each other than we might think. However, there is a special place in heaven not for the saints, but for ordinary people, neither saintly nor sinful, who have done their best. Maybe that is one of the reasons Les Miserables has been so successful. Les Miserables presents humanity’s extremes, only to celebrate the majority of people who muddle along in the middle.

A Rather Bitter Grammar Review

Set in the late 1930s, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart tells the story of a sixteen year old orphan girl who, after a wandering life in Europe, goes to stay with relatives in London.

The book has little plot or action, relying on evocative writing for its impact.

With that in mind, I found the quality of writing patchy, particularly in the second half. The Death of the Heart is on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of all time. I’m only a struggling writer, who has read books with names like How to Write a Damn Good Novel, imploring me to avoid adverbs, passive voice and inelegantly repeated words. It was disconcerting, then, to find relatively frequent use of adverbs, passive voice and repeated words in writing which is supposed to be amongst the best there is. You’ll just have to consult other reviews for themes and so on. I just couldn’t get past all the stuff in Elizabeth Bowen’s writing that I had been told not to do.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but have a look at the following and see what you think. We’ll start with repetition of words:

“Portia asked herself for the first time why what Mr Bursely had said had set up such disconcerting echoes, why she had run away from it in her mind.”

This sentence is awkward. The word had is repeated three times. Why is repeated twice. Just for good measure the question why collides inelegantly with the question what.

In a similar vein, look at this sentence:

“The sense of exposure this airy bareness gave them made them, with one another, at once sidelong and bold.”

“Gave them made them” sounds awkwardly repetitive to me.

If we’re talking about repetition, wouldn’t the book’s title The Death of the Heart have been better without the first the?

Moving on to Bowen’s use of passive voice:

“The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light.”

“The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety.”

“Here and there, a gull on a far-out post would be floated off by the tide.”

“There was a breakwater smell – a smell of sea-pickled planks, of slimy green boards being sucked by the tides.”

“Are met”, “is run through”, “would be floated” and “boards being sucked” are passive voice. Is that suggestive of things being acted upon by their environment? Or is it just the flat sound of passive voice?

Moving on to adverbs:

“Anna said, much more kindly.”

“Major Brutt had met her eyes kindly.”

“Thomas nosing so kindly round for cigars.”

“‘Don’t ask me,’ said Daphne kindly.”

“Kindly pulling Portia along by one elbow, she went to the end of the court.”

“When he had used the flame, he kindly looked down the row to see if anyone wanted a light too.”

In the next example, two adverbs – shingly and imperceptibly – and repetition of the word was, combine to produce a bizarre sentence:

“The shallow curve of the bay held a shingly murmur that was just not silence and imperceptibly ended where silence was.”

Similar to adverbs, we have intensifiers:

“His erect, rather forbidding carriage made him look so old-fashioned.”

“Outside gulls skimmed in the rather cold air.”

“Eddie smiled in a rather automatic way.”

In my own novels, not currently in the top 100 of all time, I would have avoided intensifiers like rather, which sits in an unfortunate category with very, pretty and quite.

Finally there are passages that just seemed plain wordy to me:

“Only Portia had this forbidding intimacy with him – she was the only person to whom he need not pretend that she had not ceased existing when, for him, she had ceased to exist.”

I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s top 100 novels in the hope that the best writing will help my own. This novel reminded me of wisdom attributed to Sam Goldwyn:

“Nobody knows nothing in this business.”

Hamilton – A History Play For Today

Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, February 1st 2018

For the first fifteen minutes of Hamilton, I wondered what was going on. What was this strange hip hop, rap version of early American history? I was just pondering on how I hadn’t seen anything like this before, when it struck me that I have. It was a theatrical presentation of national history in verse. The story involved kings and rebels – colonial Americans taking on the British authorities and facing the consequences of their rebellion. History, verse, kings, rebellion – this all made me think I was watching a modern take on a Shakespeare history play.

By the end of the first act, I seemed to be watching Henry V. There was much patriotic chest thumping, following the American victory. The British were personified by the smiling assassin King George III – who at least got the best songs. As in Henry V, however, there were quiet suggestions that patriotism is based on shifting sands. George Washington takes young firebrand Alexander Hamilton aside. Fighting for the cause might seem glorious, but fatherly Washington explains that things are more complicated than young Hamilton imagines. Washington dismisses the shallowness of sacrificing your life for a cause: “Dying is easy, young man, living is harder,” he explains.

If I was watching Henry V in the first half, it was more like Macbeth in the second. The second half opened with Hamilton sitting in his study quoting Macbeth, who famously killed a king and found misery rather than glory afterwards. It seemed as though winning the war against the British would be the end of the struggle. In fact it was just the beginning. Thinking back to school days, I recalled Henry V illustrating the fact that finding a foreign enemy is a good way to prevent trouble at home. However, this approach is dangerous when you live in a country where everyone is an immigrant. With the British gone, Americans found enemies in each other.

The second act is bleak, disillusioned and moving. It is all about the difficulties people have in working together. But in the show’s breathtaking coordination of words, music and dance, we had vivid evidence of what people can do as part of a well organised team. The show moved around that contradiction. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the king got everyone to sing along with him. Everyone was in harmony, but there was a price to pay for this love. There is also a price to pay for rejecting it. Perhaps that’s why Americans today, as their own empire declines, have tried to create an absolute monarch in their leader. “You’ll be back,” said King George. It seems he was right.

Finally, I would like to say I make the comparisons with Shakespeare advisedly. This really is an excellent show, the best musical I have ever seen. Bravo, Lin-Manuel Miranda.