One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 1One normally reads travel guides before one visits a country. If you find it useful, you might take it with you on your visit, but I visited Albania 16 years ago and I'm unlikely ever to travel there again unless we win the Lotto, which is unlikely even if I do remember to buy a ticket. So I took this book out of the library to remind me of our previous visit. Apart from anything else, I don't think this book was available when we visited Albania in 2000 -- the first edition seems to have been published in 2005.
So it's really for the memories, and perhaps to find out a bit more about the places and things we saw. ...more
Set in the Peak District of Derbyshire in England (which I have never been to), I kept thinking of the setting as similar tAn above-average whodunit.
Set in the Peak District of Derbyshire in England (which I have never been to), I kept thinking of the setting as similar to that of the detective novels of Peter Robinson with his detective Alan Banks, set just a bit further north in Yorkshire.
But unlike the Alan Manks series, and most other crimy mystery novels nowadays, the protagonis in this one is a junior officer, a mere Detective Constable, and not an inspector or chief inspector. He also is peculiar in not having lots of hangups and problems. He isn't an alcoholic, nor is he going though a messy divorce. His biggest decision is whether to move to town to be closer to his work.
The novel also poses some interesting questions about life in general, I rather liked this one on "community", in the mouth of one of the characters:
(Community) isn't something real, though. Is it? It's a word that we use in the titles of reports. Community liaison. Working with the community. Understanding the ethnic community. It's a word, Ben. It's not something you actually live in, not these days.
So if you enjoy crime fiction, this one is worth a look.
Spy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian FlemingSpy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian Fleming and given more impetus by the more serious and realistic novels of John le Carre, but they had been around for quite a while before that, and this is one set in the period of tension leading up to the Second World War. It's only about a third of the length of many of the Cold War spy thrillers, but that, if anything makes it more readable and more sharply focused. In looking for a postwar novel in the same genre I suppose the one that comes closest is The day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.
It's not just a spy story, it's a crime novel as well, and perhaps even more so. In that respect the contrast with postwar crime novels is quite marked. I'd just finished reading Blood on the Tongue, which is set in much the same area of England, and what stands out is the difference in police procedures. In the prewar novel, the police circulate numbers of stolen banknotes to shops and railway booking offices in a town the size of London with remarkable efficiency for pre-Internet days. and everyone throughout the country is aware of the description of a wanted man. This makes it very easy to trace the suspect. In post war crime novels, the police have suspects, but can't find them, and when they do find out that they are not the perpetrators. They discover the real perpetrators by chance as often as not.
I suspect that the recent ones are more accurate, and the pre-war ones give an exaggerated idea of police efficiency and resources. Back then they never seemed to discuss the budget available for their investigations, though Graham Greene does have some digs at differences in medical treatment for people of different classes.
Sir Harry Smith arrived in the Cape Colony as Governor at the end of 1847, with a mandate to settle its affairs, and those of its neighbours as well.Sir Harry Smith arrived in the Cape Colony as Governor at the end of 1847, with a mandate to settle its affairs, and those of its neighbours as well. He was recalled in 1852, after a little more than four years, and his bungling cost the British taxpayers a lot of money, and impoverished and alienated most of the neighbours.
My main interest in reading his life was that a year before he arrived my wife Val's Green ancestors arrived, and since they had come with the British military, Sir Harry Smith was their boss for those four years, and his policies (and bungling) shaped their lives as well as those of many others.
Val's great great great grandfather, William Green, recently widowed, was transferred from Canada to the Cape Colony in about 1846, along with several of his children, including Val's great great grandfather Fred Green, who was about 17 years old. Fred's older brother Henry, like his father, joined the commissariat department, and another brother, Edward, joined the Cape Mounted Rifles as an ensign.
Edward enlisted in the middle of the 7th Frontier War, or 7th Kaffir War, as the British called it, otherwise known as the War of the Axe. It had begun when a man of the Ngqika tribe, Tlili, had been arrested for stealing an axe from a Fort Beaufort shopkeeper. His friends organised a jailbreak, and freed him by cutting off the hand of a fellow prisoner to whom he was handcuffed. The other prisoner subsequently died, so murder was added to the charges, and war was the result.
The British Secretary of State for War and Colonies, Henry Grey (the 3rd Earl Grey) in the Liberal government of Lord John Russell, decided to appoint Sir Harry Smith as Governor of the Cape Colony and Commander in Chief of British forces there to bring an end to the war (Harington 1980:88ff).
Harry Smith was a career soldier, and had served in the Cape Colony in the 1830s under Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban, where he had taken part in the 6th Frontier War, and defeated the Xhosa tribes. He believed that the Xhosa people were tyrannised by their dictatorial chiefs, and thought that by deposing the chiefs he would liberate the Xhosas, so that they could be Christianised and civilised and become good citizens of the British Empire. On that occasion, when the Xhosa paramount chief Hintsa (who had taken little part in the fighting) came to the British camp under a flag of truce to negotiate peace terms, the British had treacherously kept him as a hostage, and finally treated him as a prisoner and murdered him while he was trying to “escape”. Smith then attempted to browbeat the other chiefs by intimidation and bluster, which he himself had referred to as “play-acting” so that, in effect, he pretended to rule them, and they pretended to surrender (Harington 1980:41ff).
Smith had then been transferred to India, where he had distinguished himself militarily against the Sikhs at the Battle of Aliwal, which had enhanced his reputation as a great military leader, and on the strength of this he was sent to the Cape Colony in three capacities – political (as Governor of the Cape Colony), diplomatic (as High Commissioner) and military (as Commander in Chief).
Smith arrived at Cape Town on 1 December 1847, when the Green family had been in the Cape Colony for about a year. He immediately set out on a tour of his domain.
With increasing numbers of British subjects (notably the Voortrekkers) from the Cape Colony settling north of the Orange River, the British government appointed Major Henry Douglas Warden as Resident in the area to keep the peace, and he settled on the farm Bloemfontein, near the Modder River in what was then known as Trans-Orangia. That, too, was to be on the itinerary of Smith’s grand tour.
The 7th Frontier War was almost over by the time Smith reached Port Elizabeth on 14 December 1847. Among those there to greet him was the Ngqika chief Maqoma, one of Smith’s old enemies from the 6th Frontier War. Maqoma had been neutral in the 7th Frontier War, and so had sat on his horse, unmolested, among the crowd who were waiting for Smith. Harington (1980:98f) describes what happened next:
From a window in the Phoenix Hotel [Smith] looked down upon an excited crowd that included many old friends and an old enemy, Maqoma himself, who astride his horse was especially prominent and noticed by Smith. To the amusement of the crowd the governor stared meaningfully at the chief, then half drew his sword. That should have been explicit enough, and sufficiently undignified, but Smith’s next actions show how success had gone to his head and affected his judgement. Though his intentions had always been good his earlier behaviour vis-à-vis the Xhosa had all too often been overbearing and eccentric, and he treated Maqoma in a manner that was outrageous, dangerous and foolish. He summoned the chief to his presence and when Maqoma offered his hand he was forced to prostrate himself in front of the governor who, having placed his foot upon his neck, poured forth a torrent of menacing vituperation over him, and threatened that all the other chiefs were going to get similar treatment. They were to be crushed and compelled to submit and obey.
Such was the man under whom three members of the Green family were to serve – William and his son Henry in the commissariat, and Edward as a Lieutenant in the Cape Mounted Rifles.
After browbeating the other Xhosa chiefs, Smith annexed their land between the Kei and Keiaskamma rivers under the name of British Kaffraria (later called the Ciskei), and told them that henceforth they would be under British rule.
In February 1848 Sir Harry Smith, after discussions with the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, proclaimed British sovereignty over Trans-Orangia, and a village was laid out at Bloemfontein , with a fort and a garrison. The garrison consisted of the Cape Mounted Rifles, the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment and the Royal Artillery88b:7). This was a mere ten years after the Great Trek.
The Sovereignty was challenged by the Boers, who proclaimed a republic at Winburg and marched on Bloemfontein, but were defeated by the British, lef by Sir Harry Smith, at the Battle of Boomplaats on 29 August 1848, where Henry Green was in charge of the commissariat. Henry Green remained in Bloemfontein, and eventually replaced the incompetent Major Harry Warden as British Resident in July 1852. In the mean time his younger brothers visited him there, and Henry seems to have found work for some of them to do, while Charles and Fred Green used it as a base for hunting expeditions to what is now Botswana. .
After a couple of years another frontier wart broke out (the 8th), and it is probably fair to say that Sir Harry Smith's arrogance and overbearing manner in dealing with the Xhosa chiefs made it much more bitter than the preceding seven wars. He sent optimistic reports back to Earl Grey in Britain about his victories, but in spite of all the battles he claimed to have won, the Xhosas still occupied their strongholds and kept the British tied up in their forts. Eventually Harry Smith was recalled.
There is more in the book about his life before this period, though his recall marked the end of his career. It was also William Green's last posting. In 1855 he retired on half pay, and went to live in London.
A book about the establishment of a hippie commune in 1968/69 in southern New South Wales.
The story is told by a retired postman, who discovers the mA book about the establishment of a hippie commune in 1968/69 in southern New South Wales.
The story is told by a retired postman, who discovers the manuscipt of an epic porm on the topic in the bottom of an old mail bag, The Ballad of Erinungarah . He asked a friend, Kimberley Moon, about the poem, and tried to follow up the events of 27 years previously, when the members are scattered or dead, and the children have grown up,
I found it an interesting and good read, and found it particularly interesting because the people involved in starting the commune were about my age, and in the same period I was involved in starting a commune, though of a rather different kind. Another reason for finding it interesting is that, though the location was fictional, the general area was at one time the home a relative of my wife Val. Her name was Agnes Green, and she lived a very interesting life, part of it in Southern New South Wales. Her first husband, William Wilson, was drowned in the Tuross River there, in 1852, when it was the scene of a gold rush.
In addition to starting the commune in a very isolated valley, the inmates also developed a neopagan cult, in which several of the males of the group emasculated themselves. The narrator, the eccentric retired postman D'Arcy D'Olivera, interprets this in the light of James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and sees parallels with the ancient cult of Cybele.
The style reminded me of some of the books of Peter Tinniswood, such as A touch of Daniel, which give a vivid picture of life in the vicinity of Manchester in England in the same period. Tinniswood's writing was contemporary, while Foster's book was written nearly 30 years afterwards, and occasionally makes remarks about not meing sure whether some things were true to the period. I'd be interested in knowing what people from Australia who were alive at that time think of its authenticity of description.
I enjoyed it, but perhaps younger people, who have no memories of that period, might not like it so much.
H. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the "lost world" genre of litH. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the "lost world" genre of literature. Like many of his books, this one is set in Africa, in the imaginary kingdom, or perhaps one should say queendom of Mur, ruled by Maqueda, a descendant King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Richard Adams, a British medical doctor, who had wandered the world practising his trade, met and married an Egyprian woman in Cairo, and also met an Egyptologist, Professor Ptolemy Higgs, whom he cured of typhoid, thus earning his gratitude. Adams's wife dies, and their only son is kidnapped, and many years later Adams has news of his son who is a slave of the Fung tribe in North Central Africa. Maqueda's people, the Abati, are traditional enemies of the Fung, and avoid being conquered by the Fung because they live in an inaccessible valley surrounded by mountains. Maqueda tells Adams of a prophecy that the Fung will leave if their sphinx-like idol is destroyed, and if Adams does that, the Abati will help him release his son.
Adams returns to Britain, taking the Queen of Sheba's ring to prove his bona fides, and enlists Professor Higgs (who is drawn by Adams's stories of ancient artifacts) and a soldier, Captain Oliver Orme, with his sidekick Sergeant Samuel Quick, and they return to Mur with the explosives needed to blow up the idol, with the two soldiers having the necessary expertise in their use.
Unlike some of Haggard's earlier books, this one seems rather contrived and unconvincing. Queen Sheba's Ring was first published in 1910, by which time most of Africa had been colonised by European powers, and very few parts remained unknown to Europeans. Perhaps Mur was in the south of Libya, which had not yet been colonised by Italy. Soon after this book was written, modern communications ensured that most educated people in most parts of the world were at least aware of the existence of places and peoples living in continents other than their own, though I am sometimes surprised by the degree of geographical ignorance displayed by contestants in quiz shows. So Rider Haggard was pushing the "lost world" trope a bit hard, though the success of Tarzan stories, and later Indiana Jones, showed that there was still a little juice that could be squeezed out of it. But most writers looking for imaginary settings moved their stories to other planets, which gave them more scope for developing exotic civilizations.
In reading this book, however, I was constantly being reminded of the time in which it was written, because if strongly reflects the arms race that preceded the First World War.
In Britain, the Liberal Party, especially, reacted against the aggressive imperialism and violence that had led to the Second Anglo-Boer War. In Queen Sheba's Ring Haggard shows himself as a convinced militarist, stressing the need for arms production and military training and conscription. At times I wondered if he had been asked, or even paid by the "hawks" in the Conservative Party to write a book that would do this.
There was quite a lot of discussion of this book on the Internet when it first came out, and a lot of people seemed to think it was marvellous, and aThere was quite a lot of discussion of this book on the Internet when it first came out, and a lot of people seemed to think it was marvellous, and a great contribution to Christian literature. I never saw it in book shops, but wondered what it was about.
Then Val brought a copy home from the library, read about 20 pages and gave up. She said it was twee, especially the bits that referred to God as "Papa"and it reminded her of the pink and purple "Christian" books with script titles one sometimes sees on the sale tables of bookshops.
After finishing another novel I was reading, and still plodding my way through Proust's magnum opus, I thought I would have a look at it.
The beginning seemed a bit Enid Blytonish, especially the description of the preparations for the camping trip, and the actual travels, and the first few days at the camp site. The initial drama of the missing person search perked up my interest, as did the return to the shack where the missing child had been held. And then "God" appeared, and I couldn't go on, and skipped to the final couple of chapters, just to see what happened in the end.
In its structure it resembles The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, but the difference is that The Shack strikes me as utterly cringeworthy. I don't usually skip bits when reading books, especially not a relatively short one (this is under 250 pages), but I simply could not go on reading the middle bits. I found its entirely anthropomorphic conception of God was a bit too much. Even The Satanic Verses didn't go that far.
I saw this book in the library and thought I'd seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20tI saw this book in the library and thought I'd seen it on a couple of those lists of books that everyone should read, or the greatest books of the 20th century, or even the Night train to Lisbon, which seemed to deserve the title In search of lost time almost as much as this one did.
I finished Night train to Lisbon, but I've still got a long way to go with this one. But I've read enough to know that it is a strange book. It seems to break every rule of good writing and style. It has sentences that run over a full page, full of subordinate clauses, and when you get to the end of the sentence you have to go back to the beginning agaain to see what the beginning of the main clause was.
I've been told this is a cultural thing.
French and Spanish writers love long convoluted sentences, while English speakers don't. At least so I've been told. From my time as an editor at Unisa I know that Afrikaans bureaucrats and academics love long and convoluted sentences too -- though sometimes I think it is for the wrong reasons. They think it sounds more "scientific". Too often, however, it's just a cover-up for bullshit. People without academic pretensions seem to be able to write clear and lucid Afrikaans prose, even beautiful prose, without the need to use turgid and turbid circumlocutions. Beyers Naude, for example. It seems strange to me that a language that has such beautiful poetry seems to have so many speakers who feel the need to uglify it with bombastic prose.
I've been told that In search of lost time is written in a "stream of consciousness" style, and that might help to explain the long sentences and convoluted syntax. But I've read other "stream-of-consciousness" novels and I don't recall the main clause being divided by half a page of subordinate clauses like an if-then computer program. Yes, one thought leads to another, but the syntax follows the thought, rather than the thought being divided by the syntax -- at least that is what I recall in The Waves and Ulysses. And this one has more digressions than Tristram Shandy.
Another confusing thing is that one is never sure of the age of the narrator. One moment he is sent to bed because he's too young to sit at the dinner table with the adults, and is scheming to get his mother to come upstairs and kiss him goodnight, the next he is holding adult literary discussions with a sophisticated friend who is excluded from the dinner table because he was rude about the narrator's great aunt. Still, I suppose my stream of consciousness jumps about like that except I'm not asking anyone else to read it, and as the author says, we don't know people, we only know out memories of them. But I think the author of Night train to Lisbon says it better, and in fewer words.
I'm sure I'll have to take it back to the library before I've finished it, and even if I do finish it there are still three more volumes to go. Maybe I'll renew it, maybe I won't.
I was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book.
A high school teI was reading this book concurrently with In search of lost time, and in some ways that seems a more appropriate title for this book.
A high school teacher of classical languages has a chance encounter with a woman on a bridge in his native town of Bern, Switzerland. She tells him she speaks Portuguese, and the sound of the word, Português grips him, and he walks out of his class, goes to town and in a second-hand bookshop he picks up a Portuguese book called A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado. He buys the book, and a Portuguese language course to enable him to read it, and the next morning he gets on a train to Lisbon.
He becomes fascinated by the life of the author of the book, who had died some 30 years before, and goes around meeting people who had known him, friends, relatives, teachers and others. He has Prado's book, and others have more of his writings, and so he speaks from the past, and others have their memories, some of which they share, and so he builds up a picture, and also reflects on his own life, and what it means. So much seems to depend on chance encounters, and so he makes life-changing decisions of the basis of a single word he heard from a stranger on a bridge.
His life becomes a strange mixture of planning to meet people who knew Prado, and also acting on a sudden whim. And so he goes in search of lost time, the lost time of Prado's past, but also the lost time of his own past, and comes to realise that all we have is memory. He takes photos of Lisbon and the people he met there, and also of his home town, Bern.
[He] went through the pictures once more. And then again. The past began to freeze beneath his look. Memory would select, arrange, retouch, lie. The pernicious thing was that the omissions, distortions and lies were later no longer recognized. There was no point of view beyond memory.
So as I read this book, I found myself going on a journey in search of lost time, a journey of memory. How much of what we are lives in the memory of those who have known us? And so much of it is partial, and, more often than not, false.
Prado was a member of the Portuguese resistance against the dictator Salazar, and that brought it home as well. Though that struggle ended twenty years before ours, for a long time they went together, and they were just over the border, in Mocambique and Angola. I did not have to have explained to me what PIDE meant, Salazar's secret police.
The book is a work of fiction, so it is not dealing with real people, but with fictional characters. Someone asked on Twitter the other day what our favourite metabook was, a book that appeared in a work of fiction. I mentioned The Historian, but if I had finished reading this book at the time I might have mentioned it too. The characters are fictional, but then so are the people we have known in real life, because they are all products of our memories, and as we try to recall them, we are in search of lost time.
An old friend died a couple of years ago, Graham Pechey. I had known him at university, 50 years ago, when he was a junior lecturer in English. He was a Marxist atheist, and he introduced me to Bob Dylan. One of the last times I saw him was on 11 November 1965. I had gone to the magistrate's office in the morning to receive an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act. Then Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent, and all the (white) Rhodesian students went to town to celebrate, and when we encountered any of them we sang "God save the Queen" and "Land of hope and glory" just to rile them. On the evening news we heard that Bram Fischer, who had been on the run from the police for months, had been captured.
We sat in Graham Pechey's flat, listening to a speech by British prime minister Harold Wilson, saying that Rhodesian passports would not be recognised, and that Rhodesia would be placed under direct rule of the crown, and that Britain would not abdicate her responsibility for Rhodesia. At the end Graham broke out the booze, and we drank toasts, to Bram Fischer, the Queen, and Harold Wilson.
I reestablished contact with Graham Pechey a coup0le of years ago through Facebook, and he had gone from being a Marxist atheist to a royalist Anglican (though still a socialist, supporting Jeremy Corbyn and demanding the renationalisation of British Rail). I'd love to have been able to sit with him over a few ales and hear the story of his transformation. I wrote to another friend of those days, Saul Bastomsky, who had been my Latin lecturer, like the narrator in Night train to Lisbon. And he recalled Graham Pechey's admiration for W.B. Yeats, and he had teased Graham by referring to Years as a "fascist magician".
So the book sent me on a memory tour, thinking of friends and friendship, and how we know people, or think we do. And even what we think we know changes as it passes into memory. ...more
It took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the sIt took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the story went along, and in the end I enjoyed it very much.
At first the descriptions seemed over the top, like one of those old TV sets where the colour and brightness levels were turned up too high. For example, "She was slim but strong, with long haunches like a well-bred horse, impressive in a solemn kind of way, shy yet provocatively earthy, painfully reticient but when drawn into converstion likely to unfold suddenly, as a quick responsive mountain flower after rain."
It's set in the dying days of the apartheid era (OK, I've given the game away, but it's not really a spoiler, just a puzzle I had, trying to work out if it was set in the 1960s or the late 1980s). The National Liberation Movement sends Cornelius Molapo to his home ground of Tabanyane, to coordinate a local uprising with the national liberation struggle. To account for his disappearance they put around the story that he had been detained by the Security Police, which brings Anthony Ferguson, who works for an international human rights NGO, to South Africa to investigate his disappearance. For Ferguson, a South African expatriate who had been out of the country for 15 years, it was as much of a strange homecoming as going home to Tabanyane was for Cornelius Molapo.
There are many surprising twists in the plot, and eventually Anthony Ferguson comes face to face with Cornelius Molapo, in circumstances he could never have imagined.
Hugh Lewin was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in sabotaging electrical installations in protest against apartheid in the 1960s. He spenHugh Lewin was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in sabotaging electrical installations in protest against apartheid in the 1960s. He spent the seven years in jail in Pretoria, where white "political" prisoners were kept (black ones were imprisoned on Robben Island, near Cape Town). This book is an account of his years in prison. The title of the book, "bandiet", was the name given to convicted prisoners by the prison warders, while the prisoners referred to the warders as "boere".
For the most part the "political" prisoners were isolated from common criminals, and enjoyed fewer privileges. They were allowed one visit and were allowed to send and receive one letter every six months. Other prisoners could have their sentences reduced for good behaviour, but the "politicals" had to serve the full term. Warders who were too friendly with them were punished.
One of the prisoners in this group, Harold Strachan, was released after serving his sentence, and the Rand Daily Mail published his account of prison conditions in 1965, which caused a public uproar, and he was soon back in jail for spilling the beans. But the publicity did lead to some improvements, and some more public scrutiny of the prison system.
Hugh Lewin also exposes the sleazy corruption that flourished in the prison system, protected by laws enforcing secrecy. Sometimes nowadays people talk as if corruption were something new, but the main difference between the 1960s and today is that today we have a constitution that protects freedom of the press, so the corruption is more easily exposed. Back then it flourished under the protection of official secrecy laws, which is why Harold Strachan soon found himself back in jail.
The first edition of Bandiet was published overseas, and banned in South Africa. The revised edition, Bandiet: out of jail, contains the complete original text, but also some additions that could not be published before, as that could have endangered those who were still in jail.
In my blog I have written a series of posts, Tales from Dystopia, anecdotes from the apartheid era in South Africa, reminders of the darkness from which we have come. This book belongs in the same category, telling it like it was. I wouldn't include it in my series, because it is not my story but someone else's, though in some ways the story touches me peripherally. Two of of Hugh Lewin's fellow prisoners were related to friends of mine, and one was a fellow-student at university with me, though I did not know him well.
One of the shortcomings of the book, I thought, was that in the revised edition, when he was able to tell all, he did not include a kind of prospography, with potted biographies of his fellow prisoners, giving something of their background, and what they were convicted of, and what happened to them after they were released. Since they were perforce a very close-knit community (though he does describe some tensions), this would have helped to broaden the story to include others. Perhaps at the time the book was first published, they would have been sufficiently well known from other sources, but few younger readers are likely to know this.
There are also some oblique references to people who were not imprisoned with him, like Looksmart. Now I know, from memory, that Looksmart Solwandle was one of the first to die in detention, but that was 50 years ago, and anyone under 65 might find it difficult to get the reference. He does, however, include quite a lot on the ill-treatment of Bram Fischer, especially in his last illness.
I don't generally like prison books (or films) and so didn't go out of my way to read this one, but I'm glad I did read it. I did read Darkness at noon by Arthur Koestler back in 1967, when I was studying in the UK. Though it was set in the USSR, I kept comparing it to the South African prisons described in the Strachan reports a couple of years earlier. Lewin mentions Darkness at noon, and I think that while I was reading it, Hugh Lewin was in jail in Pretoria, in very similar conditions.
I think I've read this book before, in fact I'm pretty certain I have, as many of the scenes rang bells for me, but the plot did not. Though there wasI think I've read this book before, in fact I'm pretty certain I have, as many of the scenes rang bells for me, but the plot did not. Though there was so much that seemed familiar, i had no idea what was going to happen next, and so it was like reading the book for the first time. I had made no note of having read it before, so could not even tell when I had read it in relation to other books by Phil Rickman.
But whenever I read it before, reading it now makes me think that the book marks a turning point in Rickman's novels, the point at which he switched from writing supernatural thrillers to writing whodunits. Being aware of what he wrote before and what he wrote after this book makes that clear, and as a result the book is rather jumbled and messy.
Merrily Watkins, for those who don't know Rickman's books, has taken over the job of diocesan exorcist for the Church of England Diocese of Hereford, but, since "exorcist" doesn't fit with the modern image the church isd trying to project, she is given the rather twee title of "Deliverance Consultant", and his called in to deal with haunted houses and demonised individuals. She is also the Vicar of Ledawardine, a picturesque tourist village on the Welsh border, and single mother of a teenage daughter making the transition from New Age to atheism.
A parishioner, Gomer Parry, who runs a plant hire business, and features in even more of Rickman's novels than Merrily Watkins, hears that his workshop has burned down, and suspects a business rival Roddy Lodge, whose shoddy workmanship he has criticised. But the discovery of a woman's body excites Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss of the West Mercia police, who thinks he has a serial killer on his hands, an imitator, or even disciple of the infamous Fred West, serial killer of Gloucester.
The whiff of old evil brings Merrily's mentor in deliverance ministry, the Revd Huw Owen, hot-footing it over the border from Wales, and all the while her boyfriend, Lol Robinson, a failed rock-folk musician, is making a reluctant come-back. To add a further complication a new parishioner at Ledwardine, Jenny Box, has seen a vision of an angel over the village, which inspired her to move there from London.
[Potential spoiler ahead]
This tangle of people with different aims and vested interests ends up in a tangled mess with a spectacularly botched funeral and a botched exorcism, with Merrily Watkins and Huw Owen working at cross purposes, in a series of scenes that are rather like a bad dream, where an important event is continually inturrupted or sidetracked by a series of distracting happenings, and each interruption is itself interrupted by something else.
If I did read this book before, it didn't look like a turning point, but reading it this time it now looks like the point at which Merrily Watkins makes the transition to becoming a 21st-century Miss Marple, only a bit younger and less astute.
Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, buA crime novel set in Spain.
Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.
The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.
About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus's novel The outsider.
One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952
It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society's shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, 'Oh, Tangier, those were the days,' because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.
The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.
Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word "parameters" in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.
No, Dostoevsky it isn't, but it's still an above-average whodunit. ...more
When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was ofWhen I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.
Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.
Perhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid's Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.
In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.
The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.
One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid's Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).
So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid's Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women's Day, the 9th of August. They didn't actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.
In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.
There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 -- Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I'm not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his "Clash of Civilizations" theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for. ...more
This story, set in a fictional women's college in Oxford in 1935, in some ways took me back to my student days, and in other ways made me conscious ofThis story, set in a fictional women's college in Oxford in 1935, in some ways took me back to my student days, and in other ways made me conscious of how times have changed. The setting is similar to some of the Inspector Morse stories by Colin Dexter, but the times have changed, manners have changed, and crime novels have changed.
The Inspector Morse stories, like many modern crime novels, are police procedurals rather than whodunits. But in Sayers's pre-war novel, the police don't appear at all; It is all private investigators, and it is a true whodunit in that the reader is offered the same clues as the detective and is challenged to work out who the perpetrator was. In this case I found it pretty easy, and the chief suspect stood out as soon as the clue was revealed.
But the whodunit aspect was only a small part of the interest of the book, for me at least. This was the Oxford of the Inklings, the literary group that included some of my favourite authors, and it is said that Sayers moved on the fringes of that group herself.
I was a student in the UK (in Durham) about 30 years later, and that is now nearly 50 years ago. I don't think it is just because I remember it that the 30 years between 1935 and 1965 seems much greater than that between 1965 and 2015. The academic concerns seem fairly similar, but the formality of manners present an enormous difference, In this book everyone, don and student alike, is referred to as Miss So-and-So. First names are hardly ever mentioned and I found that made it difficult to remember the characters and their roles. Thirty years later, we referred to everyone by nicknames. The Principal of the college was "the Prin", the vice-pricipal was Brang, and one of the tutors was Piglet. So there seemed to be an enormous gulf between the students of the 1930s and those of the 1960s,
Another interesting thing about the book was the issue of feminism. Women's colleges were still something of a novelty at Oxford, it seems, and there was quite a lot of discussion about the role of women, and the tensions between academic and family life. In part, this was dictated by the plot, and the choices faced by the protagonist Harriet Vane, and it turned out to have more to do with the plot in the end, but there was also the 8-year-old girl who wanted to ride and repair motorbikes when she grew up,
So it was an interesting book in many more ways than just a novel of crime detetction.
And those were, for me, the most interesting things about the book. I have a couple of Arthur Goldstuck's earlier books on urban legends, and there's something about them that applies to ghost stories too (apart from the fact that ghost stories are often themselves urban legends). The main interest in reading about urban legends is if you have heard them in the wild. And in the same way, ghost stories are interesting mainly if you know the places or the people concerned. Having the ghost actually related is a bonus.
But a long string of ghost stories, or non-ghost stories, tends to get boring rather quickly. The non-ghost stories are about places that are said to be haunted, but where no one actually claims to have seen a ghost, and there seem to be rather a lot of those, including the famed "spookhuis" in the Armscor grounds in Pretoria.
I found the most interesting parts of the book were the beginning and the end. The beginning told me some things about history that I didn't know, and had some interesting information about Islamic ghost stories told by slaves in the Cape, which would include stories told by slave nannies to the master's children, and so the conception of ghosts among Calvinist white Afrikaners was influenced by folktales from Muslim Indonesia.
The blurb makes much of the point that South African ghost stories are multicultural, as the different cultures influence one another, so I expected a bit more analysis and interpretation of some of the individual ghost stories, tracing the cultural influences and the different conceptions of ghosts, but there was little of that. At the end there was a potted description of how Judaism, Islam and different varieties of Christianity regard ghosts, but it too did not relate them to any individual stories. There were some quite interesting ghost stories written by children, and a description of Pinky-Pinky, a ghost that went viral among school children in the mid-1990s -- a tokoloshe for the new South Africa, as Goldstuck puts it. That was one I hadn't heard of, though our kids were still at school then.
So apart from the personal bits, I found the book a bit disappointing. If it hadn't been for the personal bits, I'd probably have given two stars, but for them I give three.
I've read most of Peter Robinson's detective novels featuring Alan Banks (now Detective Chief Inspector or DCI), and enjoyed them all. This one standsI've read most of Peter Robinson's detective novels featuring Alan Banks (now Detective Chief Inspector or DCI), and enjoyed them all. This one stands out as being better than most.
It's a police procedural rather than a whodunit, so you get to know fairly quickly who the villains are. The plot turns on how the police go about catching them and getting enough evidence to make a charge stick.
It won't be a spoiler to say that in this one the plot turns on how DCI Banks's daughter gets involved with one of the villains, and gets in over her head. It tells you that on the front cover: "A policeman's daughter should know better."
So the reader is not kept guessing about the identity of the bad guys. What is left as an exercise for the reader is the moral issue of the use of firearms by criminals and the police. This has bean a contentious issue, especially since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London in 2005.
Peter Robinson does tend to bring such issues into his novels, and some other social issues are not absent from this one as well -- the position of gay, black or female offices in the British police, for example, and relatively new crimes like people trafficking.
But the main issue here is the use of firearms by the police, and the procedures for controlling that use. I've noticed that in news stories about crime in the UK one increasingly sees images of armed and armoured police, intimidating Darth Vader-like figures, running around shouting at people with weapons ready to be fired. Here one gets a glimpse of how such things are ordered and controlled, and how things can go wrong.
One of the things I like about Robinson's books is the way in which they compel the reader to try to exercise moral judgement. I know it's fiction, "just a novel", but I wonder whether, if South African policemen read books like this, we might have avoided events like the Marikana Massacre.
The book is not moralising, or morally didactic in the sense of the author telling people what to think. Rather he stimulates the reader to think about moral issues.
From the broad sweep of moral judgement, I descend to the level of nit-picking about Robinson's use of language.
Peter Robinson was born and brought up in Yorkshire, where the novels are set, but he has lived for many years in Canada, and I wonder if he had perhaps lost touch a little.
Robinson rather selfconsciously draws attention to one of the senior police officials using American slang in referring to one of the villains as a "scumbag".
But he passes over, without comment, one of them using "momentarily" in its American sense of "in a moment" rather than "for a moment".
I would have thought that "scumbag", though it may have originated in the USA, has become fairly universal by now, and is therefore unremarkable. It does not surprise me that a British policeman would use the term.
But it would surprise me if a British police officer used "momentarily" in its American sense. It is a far more remarkable use of American slang than "scumbag".
Or have I missed something?
Has the US slang use of "momentarily" spread not only to Canada, but to the UK as well? ...more
I picked this book up in the library because I was attracted by the title. I'm a fan of the Inklings, so I was curious about the book. The blurb saidI picked this book up in the library because I was attracted by the title. I'm a fan of the Inklings, so I was curious about the book. The blurb said it was set in C.S. Lewis's and Tolkien's Oxford. But it turns out to be a trashy romance, and reads like fan fiction, a fan of the Inklings trying to write a romantic novel like Jane Austen, only without the humour.
I very nearly stopped reading after the prologue.
The stilted dialogue, the preachiness, put me off. It was so twee. A student with a crush on her tutor in 1960s Oxford. Even if it did refer to the Inklings, and was set in places familiar to them, it was badly written, at times even embarrassingly so. But I read on, and discovered that though it may be inauthentic and phony, it is as inauthentic and phony as real life.
It is set in Oxford in 1964, a year after the death of C.S. Lewis. If he had read it, perhaps he would have cringed as much as I did. But then I thought back, because at that time I was a student, and recalled the kinds of conversations that we had, the kinds of concerns that we had, and realised that it was true to life. We had crushes and unrequited love like the characters in the book. Our minds wandered in lectures and tutorials with thoughts of "She loves me/she loves me not". And we did it all without the wit of Jane Austen or the depth of thought of the Inklings, much as we admired them.
Well, in 1964 I had not heard of the Inklings, nor of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I had read, and liked, the novels of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, though, unlike the characters in this story, our English lecturers despised them, and would rather we turned our attention to writers like D.H. Lawrence and H.W.D. Manson.
But even when cringing at the stilted conversation in the prologue, I had to recall that I admired their project for a latter-day Inklings, and indeed even tried to form such a thing myself, if only on the Internet. So for many of the objectiosn to the book, I could find an excuse. There was a sense in which it was realistic and true to life. Real life conversations and situations are often as banal and stilted and silly as this.
But the excuses could not quite cover the bad writing, and the book did not live up to the title, which was what had attracted me to it in the first place.
It is an American author writing about English universities, and so she provides a glossary of English terms for American readers, But "cheerio" sounds more like 1940s slang than that of the 1960s, and the author does not seem to be aware that an academic gown is a gown and not a "robe". English people are more likely to say "I'd like you to" do something than "I'd like for you to" do something. In England a "vest" is an undergarment, and so on.
As a romance novel it was not up to the standard of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. It was more in the Barbara Cartland or Mills & Boon class. I could just make it to the end of the first part, which covered the heroine's first term at Oxford. The next part was too much, and I began skipping pages, and then whole chapters and finally reading the first couple of sentences of each chapter to see if there was anything new.
Fan fiction can sometimes be worth reading, I've sometimes urged people to write something in the same genre as one or other of the Inklings. But I don't recall any of them writing in the Mills & Boon genre like this....more
Rhis is the third of the books I've read in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and I've just realised that I've neglected to writRhis is the third of the books I've read in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, and I've just realised that I've neglected to write reviews of the other two either here in GoodReads or on my blog.
There is something about Zafón's books that is reminiscent of Phil Rickman, with the shared characters, and the undertone of fantasy and horror. The difference is, as I can now see, that Zafón's books need to be read in order, even though The Angel's Game is a kind of prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.
In that respect they are more like C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, where it is better to read them in published order rather than the chronological order in the sequence of stories. Chronology is an obsession of modernity, and Lewis, in particular, was trying to lead his readers out of modernity into a mythical world.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a similar intertwining of the mythical and the modern, though in a somewhat darker and more adult way than Lewis.
So for now let me just say for that the seres is about different generations of the Sempere family who run a bookshop in Barcelona, and the different generations of the family are introduced in turn to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where they are invited to leave a book that has been, or is likely to be forgotten, and to take one forgotten book and read it. Behind this lurke the idea that the book has something of the soul of its author and its readers embedded in it. ...more
One of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets twOne of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets two for the price of one -- Walter and Albertina Sisulu were a married couple forced to live much of their life apart, and for several decades it was rare that there would be a time when there wasn't at least one member of the Sisulu family in jail or banned.
Walter Sisulu was Secretary Gerneral of the African National Congress (ANC) at the time it was banned in 1960, and resumed his organising activities when he emerged from prison and it was unbanned 30 years later. Albertina was a leader of the ANC Women's League, and was in jail, detained without trial, and banned for many years.
They belonged to my parents' generation, but the second half of their life story was about times that I myself have lived through, and so casts new light on those times for me. It was written by their daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, who knew them personally, and so they come alive in a way that is not possible in biographies written by impersonal outsiders. And perhaps because Walter was a political prisoner, the securocrats kept much of his correspondence from jail, and so, even though what he wrote was censored, there is something very warm and human that comes across in his letters to family and friends.
On reading the story of the Sisulus, I am acutely aware of how the leadership of the ANC, and of the country, has deteriorated since then. We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu again, more's the pity. The time that Albertina Sisulu was a Member of Parliament, from 1994-1999, was a high point in our country's history, though we did not realise it at the time. It is sad to see how much things have declined.
But the Sisulus would be the last to claim the credit for that. They believed in party discipline, and collective leadership. They believed that leaders must be responsible to the community, and this comes out in the sharp contrast between the disciplined and humble Albertina Sisulu and the publicity-seeking loose cannon Winnie Mandela. There were events involving Winnie Mandela that received a great deal of publicity at the time, such as her notorious football club. One did not know what to believe in the media reports, so I held my own counsel at the time, because judgements based on incomplete reports are usually wrong. Albertina Sisulu held her own counsel too, but now the story can be told.
One of the things that struck me was that in a sense people like Nelson Mandela, the Sisulus and the Tambos were larger than life, and this seemed to contrast with the idea of collective leadership and being responsible to the community, in fact collective leadership works best with people who stand out from the crowd, yet see themselves as part of it.
One small point that shows how far the ANC has fallen is that when Walter Sisulu was invited to visit the People's Republic of China, and the latter asked him not to visit Taiwan, he refused, saying that he went where he was sent by the ANC, and not by the hosts of one of the places he was visiting. The contrast between that and the present ANC givernment's refusal to give visas to the Dalai Lama could not be more stark.
In some ways the book is also a family history, and here there is a shortcoming. There are pedigree charts showing the ancestry of Walter and Albertina Sisulu (though not of Walter's father, who played little part in his life), but there is no chart of their descendants, and as they had numerous grandchildren a family tree chart (or even several) showing them and their relationships would also have been useful.
It is also a love story. One of the lasting effects of apartheid was to destroy family life, especially for black people. But in spite of having to live almost half of their married life apart, Walter and Albertina Sisulu were an outstanding example of family life, and life as a married couple.
It is, however, a readable and well-researched book, and for anyone interested in South African history from 1940-2000, it's a must read. ...more
When I read the blurb on the cover, I expected a kind of Darth Vader story, a child who had lots of promise, but grew up and turned to the dark side.When I read the blurb on the cover, I expected a kind of Darth Vader story, a child who had lots of promise, but grew up and turned to the dark side. About halfway through I began to change my mind, and thought it might be about something else. But to say much more would be to give away too much of the plot.
It's about love and hatred, and love that suffocates and love that turns into hatred. It's about jealousy and revenge, despair and hope.
I can't say much more than that without giving away too much of the plot. ...more
A couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missingA couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missing in the book (my review here). I couldn't quite put a finger on the missing bit, so I thought I would read Tropic of Cancer, which is the story of an aspiring American writer living in Paris.
Since both are semi-autobiographical novels they invite comparison, though perhaps it isn't doing justice to Miller to compare him with another writer, but it's the theme that interests me, rather than the individual novels. They were written 30 years apart -- Paris in the 1930s, London in the 1960s, and that in itself makes quite a big difference. It is hard to think that the 1960s are further away from us now than the 1930s were then. Perhaps it is because I was alive in the 1960s and thought that the 1930s were impossibly remote. Perhaps it is because WWII intervened, and we are living in a different world.
But with Henry Miller it doesn't matter much that we are living in a different world, because his books in a sense are timeless. In reading Tropic of Cancer the main thing that seemed different and out of place was that males wore hats, and felt uncomfortable if they went out hatless.
The first book of Miller's that I read was The Colossus of Maroussi, and it is still the one I like the best. One of the things I liked most about it was his descriptions of places, and there are some good descriptive passages in Tropic of Cancer too.
When it was first published Tropic of Cancer and its companion volume Tropic of Capricorn were banned in most English-speaking countries. Even when they were unbanned in the 1960s they were regarded by many as "dirty" books, because of the explicit sexual descriptions. In the 1980s, of course, no novel was complete without such things -- what was forbidden in the 1930s became compulsory 50 years later, so Miller's book no longer shocks.
People might find it distasteful for other reasons, though; it is sexist, and there is an undertone of racism as well. Some have said that the book is misogynist, but it is not so much mysoginist as sexist. Miller doesn't hate women, he just doesn't have much use for them, or rather he just has one use for them -- as sexual objects, and that is how he describes them all the way through the book. They are not people, they are genitals with mouths and legs attached.
But most of his descriptions of males were also pretty dehumanising. Perhaps that's why I like Miller best for his descriptions of places, rather than of people. ...more