What is it about the English and self-depreciation?
Tinniswood’s Uncle Mort has a gloomy belief in the centrality and value of Yorkshire. When he feelWhat is it about the English and self-depreciation?
Tinniswood’s Uncle Mort has a gloomy belief in the centrality and value of Yorkshire. When he feels broad-minded, he also admires the rest of the North of England. He also believes strongly in the value of his own opinions. His parochialism begins with his relentless self-belief.
He also prefers his own gender, being suspicious of women. He is, however, no homosexual, (this being a southerner’s pursuit), but his carnal relations with his wife are a duty and not a pleasure, and Mort’s description of them is breathtaking.
Yet under it all, Mort knows that being Mort is not a desirable thing to be. At one point, Mort explains how he once almost lost his identity and became like a southerner, which is to say, “nice”. Occasionally too, one wonders whether Mort really believes the certainties that cover up his own self-doubt. Ultimately, this book celebrates the awfulness of the industrial North of England. It is a comic book, but there is tragedy in the heart of Mort and of men like him.
I felt that when Robin Bailey put him into a TV sit-com, Mort was subtly transformed into a stage-Yorkshireman, something the original books avoided. Bailey also told the stories “from the Long Room” which portayed a rather different kind of besieged masculinity, and these were much better. There are some good readings on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aflNhp...
Mort, however, is not entirely imaginary. As a small child, growing up in what became “Scargill-country", I was once solemnly told by a school-friend, "Yorkshire is best. Lancashire is next. Then Scotland." And this heirarchy stuck in my mind. Also, my father secretly believed that southerners were all homosexuals but he mostly kept this opinion to himself. These are all however the kind of view that could be uttered with unanswerable certainty by Uncle Mort. ...more
A really good read, with well-drawn characters and a gripping plot.
It's a sorry tale of spying and treachery. The heroine, Sally, was a wartime spy wA really good read, with well-drawn characters and a gripping plot.
It's a sorry tale of spying and treachery. The heroine, Sally, was a wartime spy who can never leave behind the past for fear of an old enemy, a traitor who must silence her. The plot is framed so that the now elderly Sally's long and secret life unfolds through her relationship with her daughter. Here, everybody is more or less betrayed: the spy herself, her target (in this case, America), her fellow-spies, her lover, her husband, her daughter and finally the traitor who for so long pursued her. Bleakly, even when she has nothing to fear, she is haunted by the fear she is now used to. ...more
I liked this book much more than the Da Vinci Code which I thought pretty awful. It isn’t great literature, but it’s the kind of book to enjoy on holiI liked this book much more than the Da Vinci Code which I thought pretty awful. It isn’t great literature, but it’s the kind of book to enjoy on holiday or when stuck alone in an hotel room. It’s hokum of the same kind as the Indian Jones stories, but it’s none the worse for that. Also, while Brown steadfastly misinterprets (as might an American tourist) the London and Paris of the Da Vinci Code, this new book is set in America, which he does seem to know something about.
The story revolves around the “Mason’s Word”, which is genuinely one of the central ideas in Freemasonry. Its story tells of a Bad Man is trying to find this Word, in the belief that it will give him immense power. There is also a mysterious pyramid which contains hidden messages that will explain where this Word is hidden. Our heroes have the task of trying to stop him finding the Word. Many of the people in the book - several heroes and the villain - are said to be 33rd Degree Masons from the so-called “Scottish” system of Freemasonry.
In contrast to the Da Vinci Code, which rather gratuitously attacks the Catholic Church and the organization called “Opus Dei”, the narrative of this book doesn’t seriously misrepresent or attack Freemasonry, though there are some occasional mistakes. From time to time too, it inserts some fairly standard arguments to counter anybody who harbours unkind thoughts about this excellent body of men.
The whole thing is set in and around the Capitol building in Washington DC, a building that has fairly strong Masonic connections. (Not least, George Washington wore a Masonic apron when he laid the Corner Stone of the Capitol – an apron embroidered by the wife of his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, who led another great Revolution.) The story takes us into the caves and tunnels beneath the Capitol which apparently resemble similar crypts beneath the Vatican and beneath the Temple in Jerusalem. And in a classic Dan Brown treasure hunt, the reader goes on a journey around other Washington sites of Masonic significance which the heroes are able to interpret with surprising conviction.
There is also a fair amount of pseudo-scientific guff. One of the heroes is a scientist who marries parapsychology with physics, and at one point she successfully weighs a person’s soul. At the end, Brown has a crack at understanding the true interpretation of the Mason’s Word. No Mason I, but I think there are better interpretations tan the one given here.
But it’s a good enough read, provided one has a deck chair beneath one’s backside and a glass of beer in one’s hand. It’s not to be taken too seriously. ...more
I read this book many years ago. Today, I picked the book off my shelves and re-read the first lines. It still makes the hair rise on the back of my nI read this book many years ago. Today, I picked the book off my shelves and re-read the first lines. It still makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.
I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life. - - - But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine-tapster for me; he had no other work more than to tap palm-wine every day. So my father gave me a palm-tree farm which was nine miles square and it contained 560,000 palm-trees, and this palm-wine tapster was tapping one hundred and fifty kegs of palm-wine every morning, but before 2 o’clock p.m., I would have drunk it all; after that he would go and tap another 75 kegs.
The book tells of the sad demise of our hero’s palm-wine tapster and of the search to find him. In effect, this single narrative holds together a sequence of quite separate folk-stories. For several pages, one feels one is entering a rather genial world, full of the folksy stories of the kind one might read to children.
But then one finds that these are not children’s stories at all. Much more than those of the Brothers Grimm or of Hans-Christian Anderson, these stories are harsh and blood-curdling, almost too painful to read.
Their major themes are dismemberment, abduction and death. We meet Death himself, whose household furniture and firewood is made from human remains. We meet a “gentleman” of great beauty who has abducted a young woman. This man has hired his body-parts from traders, and when he returns these to their owners, he is reduced merely to being a skull who lives in a hole in the ground.
It is not, however, the single horrific images or single stories that are difficult to cope with, but rather the accumulation of these images, one piled upon another.
Later in life, Tutuola gained some small acceptance in the Nigerian literary establishment. However, for many years, he was disparaged by his fellow-writers who disliked his portrayal of Yoruba culture and his fluid, un-literary style. They perhaps too felt that, as the comedy of the first pages dissipates into horror, that this is a very strange book indeed. ...more
This book was written in 1908, when the world was being shaken by the newly self-confident masses. Women were propagandising for the vote; the Irish wThis book was written in 1908, when the world was being shaken by the newly self-confident masses. Women were propagandising for the vote; the Irish were demanding Home Rule; the Trade Unions were showing their strength. Socialism theatened. A spectre was haunting Europe, and particularly England.
Wind in the Willows is an elegant parable about class struggle, about the dangers of decadant country-house-living in the face of powerful revolutionary forces.
There are maybe four generations in the story. There is the young man Ratty, a gentle sort of chap who spends his time messing about in boats. He is joined by the younger, less experienced Mole. Mole may even be petty-bourgeois, but he proves himself to be stout-hearted for all that. Mr Toad, however, has come into his inheritance, and lives in his country house. Toad is an irresponsible figure, taking up foolish hobbies of which, in the story, the most fateful is the motor car. The older man is Badger, and it is he that casts cold water on this irresponsibility.
But where is all this irresponsiblity going to lead? Outside this cosy comfortable setting, lie the dangerous forces in the Wild Wood. Mr Toad, besotted by his motor car, is arrested and sent to gaol. His defences down, his house is quickly occupied by the weasles and stoats who live in the Wild Wood.
To the rescue comes Mr Badger, who is wise enough to see that if Toad is to regain his valuable property, he must forsake idleness and frivolity and stand up to the people of the Wild Wood. So the band of gentlemanly heroes take up arms and re-establish the shaken social order.
"We shall creep out quietly into the butler's pantry -", cried the Toad,
"- with our pistols and swords and sticks - ", shouted the Rat,
"- and rush in upon them -", said the Badger,
"- and whack 'em and whack 'em and whack 'em - ", cried the Toad in ecstasy.
This is, then, a cautionary tale, a warning to the propertied classes to take up, if necessary, arms against the lower classes and to stop living lives of decadent indolence. ...more
People in Northern Ireland rather think that Seamus Heaney – “Famous Seamus”, they say with irony – belongs to them. They feel he is close to them, exPeople in Northern Ireland rather think that Seamus Heaney – “Famous Seamus”, they say with irony – belongs to them. They feel he is close to them, expressing their everyday concerns. Even when he ventures into abstruse territory, for example, translating Beowulf or Antigone, Ulster people sense that even these texts express concerns they share with him.
Gaelic football is a big preoccupation in the area he was brought up. So when I found myself there discussing football, it was no surprise that different teams claimed ownership over him, each explaining how he played football for their team and not for the others
A recurring theme in his poetry is his childhood in the flat farmlands of south Derry. It was a life of butter-churning, pig-killing, turf-digging, jamb-walls, funerals; of policemen and beggar-women; of taciturn farmers sending foolish youths on fools’ errands; a world where recreation revolved around Gaelic sport; one where the postman had to know the invisible boundaries of invisible townlands. Heaney writes much of his father who spent much of his life in silence, believing that “even to speak at all was an affectation”, and of his siblings, for example, playing at trains on the living room couch. It is the kind of world – fading now – that I got to know myself in other parts of rural Ulster, though in my case as an outsider. All the same, having been among such people, I find his poems startle me by being accurate.
It would be wrong to think Heaney sentimental. Nor is he a parochial poet. It’s just that he evokes more general truths by writing straightforwardly, with realism and apparent simplicity, about the people and the places he knows.
Ulster, however, is a complicated place. At the moment Heaney emerged as a writer, so did Ulster’s Troubles. Heaney therefore gave significant voice to a strand of decency found in Ulster political opinion. Few people in Ulster are blindly sectarian; but nor can they shake off old loyalties and this ambiguity is present in his writing. He gives voice to what everybody feels in war, the anger, the futility, the exasperation, the sense that what one does is what one also regrets. He sometimes gives vent to the hypocrisy and untruth that conflict brings. “Whatever you say, say nothing” is the title of a poem, but it became a catchphrase in Ulster, for it rang an important bell.
Heaney is a poet to his boots, passionate about language. Despite his subject matter and the seeming simplicity of his writing, his scholarship peeps through. He seems pleased to have had his ability recognized, but he does not appear to have sought recognition. I met him briefly once, and I thought him a kindly, decent man who just liked to write poetry. The book contains his speech of acceptance in Stockholm. It is a model of clear prose and humanity, and well worth reading.
The epithet “Famous Seamus” has a convoluted Ulster irony. It firmly chides him for winning a Nobel Prize, for in rural Ulster, one is supposed to be “modest”. But there is also affection in the accusation, for everybody knows that Heaney as a quiet, modest man who wears his celebrity very lightly. Indeed, one doubts if he wears it at all. ...more
Cool, bitter, bitter humour. These tales belonging the genre called the "Butler's Revenge". Saki's favourite people, however, are children and domestiCool, bitter, bitter humour. These tales belonging the genre called the "Butler's Revenge". Saki's favourite people, however, are children and domestic animals. These, like Saki himself, are imprisioned outsiders, who bite back at the dull, complacent people who control them....more
When the frivolous Jack Worthing visits the country, he disguises himself as “Earnest” to escape from London Society. Unfortunately, he loves GwendolyWhen the frivolous Jack Worthing visits the country, he disguises himself as “Earnest” to escape from London Society. Unfortunately, he loves Gwendolyn, but she will never marry him if he is not truly Earnest. Her mother, Lady Bracknell, has parallel concerns. She wants her daughter to marry a man of good family. Unfortunately, not only is Jack not “Earnest”, it also turns out that he is a foundling. He was found in a handbag in the left luggage department at Victoria Station, on the Worthing line.
Lady Bracknell is the main obstacle to Jack’s plan. Her husband’s title and lands, we assume, date back to the Conquest or Flood. She, however, had had no fortune of her own. Like other aristocratic wives, her position in Society is fragile, because second-hand. She must bolster her place in Society and rescue her daughter from a frivolous bachelor who was born into a lowly station.
Oscar Wilde resolves the play’s dilemmas with an outsider’s waspishness. Snobbery and the marriage market were major concerns in upper class London, but Wilde dismisses them with unlikely coincidences and an easy laugh. He was homosexual and (which was worse) he was Irish. Also, he was scarcely a gentleman. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a Dublin surgeon, not a landowner. This made him almost in “trade”. A jester at court, Oscar was in Society but not of it, admired for his frivolity but not much else.
Famously, he once remarked to a customs official, “I have nothing to declare but my genius”, and therein lay his difficulty. Genius was not much prized in upper class England where a title and a large estate counted for more.
His patrons, thus satirized, finally got their revenge, and the jester ended up in gaol. Wilde died a Catholic, this being a radical step for an Irish Protestant. Thrown out of English Society and also from the Anglo Irish establishment which was his more natural home, perhaps he felt he had nowhere else to go. It is to the credit of the Church that they took him in. ...more
This really is an extraordinary volume. In the UK, Frank Muir (d.1998) was a much-loved character latterly famous as an urbane and witty radio and telThis really is an extraordinary volume. In the UK, Frank Muir (d.1998) was a much-loved character latterly famous as an urbane and witty radio and television performer on quiz shows, but remembered too as a comic writer who co-authored the ground-breaking radio comedy Take It From Here, which incorporate the splendidly awful radio soap-opera,The Glums.
This book reveals a new Frank Muir, a man of considerable erudition, for this is an intelligent selection of comic prose, made all the better by an equally intelligent commentary. Here, one can savour pretty much all of the best comic writers, such as Lewis Carroll, Stella Gibbons, Philip Roth, Damon Runyan, Mark Twain, PG Wodehouse, in total, about 250, most of them famous, but quite a few not at all well-known.
Each of these writers is provided with a short, often learned biographical note, followed by one or more gobbets of humorous prose. Unlike dictionaries of quotations, most of these gems are sufficiently lengthy to thwart any reviewer who strives to provide a pithy extract. Their focus is not on the quotable quote, but upon lengthier passages that evoke each writer’s style of writing. The sections are organised roughly in historical sequence, allowing Muir to tell his story as a continuous historical narrative.
The book's only real weakness, it is that it is poised, rather uncertainly, between being a work of reference and one of critical scholarship. I would myself have preferred the authors to have been placed in alphabetical order to make the sections more accessible, but the book works, nonetheless.
There is a delicious piece by Dorothy Parker, for example, depicting a young man’s growing recollection of a disastrous party.
Was I making a pass at Elinor?” he said, “Did I do that?"
“Of course you didn’t,” she said, “You were only fooling that’s all. She thought you were awfully amusing. She was having a marvellous time. She only got a little tiny bit annoyed just once, when you poured the clam-juice down her back.”. - - -
And here are Sellar and Yeatman, waxing historical, on Robin Hood:
“Amongst his Merrie Men were Will Scarlet (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Black Beauty, White Melville, Little Red Riding Hood (probably an out-daughter of his) and the famous Friar Puck who used to sit in a cowslip and suck bees, thus becoming so fat that he declared he could put his girdle round the Earth.
Saki is good for quotes:
Henry Duplis was by birth a native of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. On maturer reflection, he became a commercial traveller.
Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.
HL Menkin, is known as an inhabitant of dictionaries of quotations, and there are some nice quotations, but it is also good to read some of his continuous prose. Here, one must put up with a quote:
Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
Adultery: democracy applied to love
And then there are surprises: the fact that George Eliot could be humorous; that Johnson’s dictionary was laced with witticisms (not just the one about the lexicographer); and that sixteenth century sermons could be hilarious.
The great joy of the book is that one can look up an unfamiliar author’s name just to get a potted biography and an example of his/her work.. But if that seems an over-earnest approach to comedy, the book can be kept by one’s elbow to be opened at random just to spend five minutes having a sly giggle. ...more
The first time I read this book, as a teenager, I could not see the point. So I put it down without finishing it. Now I see it as one of the great booThe first time I read this book, as a teenager, I could not see the point. So I put it down without finishing it. Now I see it as one of the great books. The character of Svejk is straight out of folklore. He is the foolish man who somehow kills the giant, gets the princess and claims the gold. Except that here is no fairy tale, but a story of war and a story of bureaucrats and officialdom.
Specifically, we at first witness Svejk, a bumbling lower class oaf who has been recruited into the army, and who, in consequence, daily encounters a sequence of bumbling upper class oafs, his officers. These latter individuals are running a totally disastrous war, the Great War for Civilization, which is destroying their own country of Austria Hungary.
Svejk, however, is not moderately stupid. He is very very stupid. Indeed, he is so very stupid that he somehow manages to keep himself out of trouble and out of danger. Gradually, we wonder whether Svejk might actually be quite a clever man, who knows how to handle himself in the face of arbitrary power, bureaucracy and bone-headed idiocy. Finally, because the war's stupidity is actually quite a serious matter, we make another discovery. By an imperceptible transmogrification, Svejk ceases even to appear to the reader as a fool. Instead, we discover him to be a quiet, intelligent hero, the model, indeed for the Czechoslovak hero who emerged from the old Empire to found a new society....more
An amiable spy story from a more innocent age. MI6 is run by Blimpish amateurs employing less-than-effectual James Bonds. Poor Mr Wormold's vacuum cleAn amiable spy story from a more innocent age. MI6 is run by Blimpish amateurs employing less-than-effectual James Bonds. Poor Mr Wormold's vacuum cleaner business cannot support his daughter's extravagance, so he gets sucked into espionage. A harmless deception turns sour, however, and, as in all Graham Greene novels, our hero confronts a bad conscience and he must take a necessary revenge. It's a good book about friendship, honour and the idiocy of politics. ...more
Some Scottish people claim Burns as their own. Actually, he belongs to me too. He writes very simply about ordinary things, and so very few people canSome Scottish people claim Burns as their own. Actually, he belongs to me too. He writes very simply about ordinary things, and so very few people can just do that. ...more
Stephen Potter was all the rage in the late 1950s, and there was a film based on his books starring Terry Thomas. Leslie Philips and co. They are allStephen Potter was all the rage in the late 1950s, and there was a film based on his books starring Terry Thomas. Leslie Philips and co. They are all about how to manipulate people and put them down. I thought the book a bit too small-minded, sadistic and sour for my taste. Machiavelli rewritten for the golf club. Indeed, the makers of the film seem to have shared my opinion, coming off the manipulation at the end in favour of such values as generosity, honesty etc, just so the film could have a happy ending....more