histories, his stories

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The union of England and Wales with Scotland that had been carried in 1707 had created a polity virtually coterminus with the island of Great Britain, but in 1800, the national boundaries of the United Kingdom were redefined and extended to encompass the neighbouring landmass of Ireland.

victorious centuryWhen I read the opening words of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906, I found myself oddly unsettled, and it took me a long time to understand why. I remember reading a lot of histories like this when I first got interested in history back in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, this patrician tone was par for the course in anything that was meant to be taken seriously as history. I’m used to this somewhat laboured style, it wasn’t unfamiliar to me. And yet it felt wrong.

It was only as I got half-way down the first page (and half-way down the first paragraph) that I came upon this sentence:

This Act of Union was driven through in Ireland itself by the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy), the Marquis Cornwallis, and in Britain by the First Lord of the Treasury (and de facto prime minister), William Pitt the Younger.

This, I realized, was the first appearance by a person in this particular history. But these weren’t people, they were positions: title comes before name, and in the case of Cornwallis, there are three titles (Lord Lieutenant, Viceroy, and Marquis) but only a surname. Nothing humanizes these figures who are shaping the destinies of two countries. Indeed, nothing does humanize them: Cornwallis isn’t given a christian name anywhere in this chapter; neither man is described, neither man’s character is explained, we aren’t even given their ages (in the case of Pitt, “the Younger” is made to seem part of his surname rather than an attribute of age).

And this, I realized, was what I found unsettling about the book. History books these days don’t start like that. They start dramatically: “On the morning in 1783, when William Pitt the Younger walked into 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, he was just 24 years old.” Or they start descriptively: “Cornwallis was a beaten man, forever scarred by the events at Yorktown nearly 20 years before, but he had made a glittering success in his latest role as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” Or they start in media res: “George III was having none of it. Pitt’s idea of a Union with Ireland was all well and good, he said, but Catholic emancipation was out of the question.”

History books nowadays begin in many ways, but two things are consistent: they are written to tell a story, and they almost invariably begin with people.

But not this book. This is an old-fashioned political history of Britain between the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and the election of the Liberal government of Campbell Bannerman in 1906. It is replete with names, hundreds of them, cabinet ministers, statesmen, campaigners and the like. But they are never more than names: if they ascend to the aristocracy (as so many of those in political office do) then they are only referred to by their title. No one is described (I think there’s a passing reference to Disraeli’s looks, but you could hardly avoid that, could you?), there is no attempt to get under the skin of any of them, to investigate motives, no moment in this very dramatic century is actually dramatized (I don’t think I have ever seen the Peterloo massacre dealt with so dispassionately).

Something of the quality of the book is displayed in the last chapter, when the publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells prompts Cannadine to a rare flight of fancy. For 30 pages he imagines what a visitor from 1800 would have made of the world of 1900. It is an interesting imaginative exercise, summarizing all that had changed over the course of the century. But for Cannadine, the very first thing his time travellers would notice was that “Britain’s position in the world was familiar, yet not quite the same.” Really? I would have thought that the very first things they would notice would be the clothes, the crowds, the smells, the monstrosities of trains and horse-drawn omnibuses and motor vehicles. The material things that represent all the ways that life had changed for ordinary people over the century. All of these things would open up discussion of population growth, urbanization, the development of new dyes, advances in technology and so forth. But no, “In the light of the many continental coalitions through which they had lived in the 1800s, the time travellers might not be surprised to learn that Britain had recently renewed its European commitment after a long period of detachment from direct involvement in continental affairs; but they might have been taken aback to discover that the recent military alliance had not been with Germany but with France.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book in many ways. There is a lot of rich detail. It is mostly political history: there is more detail about acts of parliament that succeed or fail, than there is social history about the way people live, and there is more social history than there is cultural history. But there is some cultural history, often presented in interesting juxtapositions: for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is presented as part of the wave of popular unrest that included the Peterloo massacre. (Though it may be indicative of something that the very few errors that I spotted all tended to be associated with social rather than political history; for instance, unless things have changed dramatically over the last century and a half, New Lanark is not actually near Manchester.) It is worth noting, though, that Cannadine will provide some explanation of social and cultural changes, as if these aren’t his natural territory and he has to tread carefully; but when it comes to political structures, he often assumes that he doesn’t need to explain anything. Throughout the century, the person who is prime minister is chosen by the monarch regardless of the political make-up of parliament. Because of her antipathy towards Gladstone, Victoria seems to have several times tried to name Disraeli as prime minister even though the conservatives were not in the majority in the house. And this practice continued into the 20th century: Campbell Bannerman became prime minister in December 1905, before the election of 1906 that brought the Liberals a crushing victory. Now I don’t understand how this works, and I would have relished an explanation, but Cannadine doesn’t seem to feel that is necessary.

It is also, perhaps inevitably given its focus, a very masculine book. You can probably count on the fingers of two hands the women who are mentioned in the first 500 pages of the book. Even Victoria doesn’t get that much of a look in. We are told several times that she didn’t like Gladstone, but we’re not told that much else about her. Then, in the last few pages of the book, he launches into an account of the rise of the New Woman and suffragism in the latter part of the century, and all at once he multiplies by several times the number of women named.

I had to check: Victorious Century was first published in 2017. In many ways, it feels much older.

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Photographs

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the photographs of joan leigh fermorThe Patrick Leigh Fermor industry has been busier since his death than he ever was in his lifetime. This year alone we have had a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum devoted to Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika and John Craxton; which was in turn accompanied by an even more wonderful book, which to my mind is a model of what a book associated with an exhibition should be like. And now Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart have produced The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover. (Personally, I could have done without the somewhat saccharine quality of that subtitle; but then I could have done without much of the account of her life that occupies rather too much of this book, particularly since so much of it is devoted to telling us, repeatedly, how devoted she was to Paddy, and by extension how wonderful Paddy was.)

Joan Eyres Monsell, who became Joan Rayner before she became Joan Leigh Fermor, was almost a cliche. She came from the sort of family that makes Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited seem rather common and lower class. Her immediate ancestors include a member of Gladstone’s cabinet, a Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police, a polar explorer, a First Lord of the Admiralty, a hymn writer, and, of course, a Baron. They were rich, influential, massive landowners, and residents of a stately home in the Cotswolds, Dumbleton Hall. She was the archetypal rebellious daughter of privilege, moving in artistic circles, friends with Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman and Lucien Freud and Freddy Ayer and Kenneth Clark and Osbert Lancaster and so on, and sleeping around with those of them who weren’t gay. When she married the journalist John Rayner in the late-1930s, he was monogamous, she wasn’t; the marriage did not last. And Joan helped to cement her position in this bohemian set by using her wealth, buying art from the artists, offering support for those who needed it.

Yet at this time she was also establishing a career for herself as a photographer. Her photographs appeared, often uncredited, in several of the Shell Guides that Betjeman was editing, also in the magazine Architectural Review, and in various other books and magazines. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was commissioned to photograph the heritage that was considered most at risk from German bombs, though with the onset of the Blitz this turned into a record of the damage done, her work appearing magazines like Horizon. As well as her photographic work, she served briefly as a nurse, and then trained to become a cipher clerk, being posted to Algiers, then paddyMadrid, and finally in 1944 to Cairo, where she met Paddy. (It somehow confirms things I’d begun to suspect from my other reading about Leigh Fermor to see him described here not just as charming, but as “indecisive, impractical and clumsy.”) They met again, after the war, in Greece, and began the romance that, in all I’ve read, seems to subsume everything else about her.

She continued to take photographs for various magazines for the next few years, but most of her work was to support Paddy’s journeys around Greece to research his books, Mani and Roumeli. Then, sometime around 1960, she simply stopped being a professional photographer. She had always been dismissive of her own talents, referring to her photographs simply as snaps, and from then on seemed to have largely reserved her photography for recording the house and Kardamyli that she and Paddy were building (mostly with her inheritance). Which is a pity, on the evidence here she was, at her best, quite a remarkable photographer.

greek villagersShe used, practically throughout her life, a Rolleiflex taking a square 6×6 negative. To show them at their best, the book is (almost) square, with the photographs placed in the middle of a grey page. It is a presentation that I find benefits the photographs while at the same time being frustrating to the viewer. I’ll come to the frustrations in a moment, but first let me just extol the pictures themselves. The early ones are haunting evocations of war-damaged London: an arched gateway set within fragments of wall at Haberdasher’s Hall, with nothing else standing, and in the foreground snow piling on the rubble before the gate; a barrage balloon floating almost directly above the tower of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s seen from the grime of Limehouse Cut. There are too few of these, then suddenly we are in Greece and the character of the photographs has changed dramatically. Some are almost abstract: square blocks of an old village standing above a winding pattern of terraces like one of Ghika’s landscapes; a small family of goats plodding wearily up a zigzag stairway clinging precariously to a cliffside. Some are touristy: the Lion Gate at Mycenae, the ruins at Delphi, archetypal orthodox churches almost disappearing into rugged landscapes. Some really are family snaps: Paddy, of course, dancing among ruins or gazing moodily into the distance; and friends like Xan Fielding and Lawrence Durrell and John Craxton. There’s a wonderful series of margot fonteyn & Freddy Ashtonphotographs of Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton performing dance exercises on the deck of a caique, using the ship’s rail as a bar; and there is a beautiful picture of Fonteyn sunbathing nude. But it is the photographs of rural life in Greece that are so wonderful: a muezzin calling out from a ramshackle wooden platform; craggy-faced shepherds in baggy pantaloons grasping crooks taller than they are; clusters of women in traditional costume; an old soldier with a long white beard and his rifle; young men clustered round a ricketty table in a crumbling kafeneion; the ribs of a boat that is being built but that looks like the skeleton of some long-dead sea monster. These are amazing glimpses of something alien and yet extraordinarily human.

I could, quite frankly, have done with less of the life of Joan Leigh Fermor that fills out the last 80-odd pages of this book, and more of the photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor. This is little more than a fragment of her output, after all. At one point there is one of her contact sheets, showing 12 pictures that are not otherwise included in the book. One of these shows a young woman in a floral print dress standing in a barren landscape, but with what looks like the skull of a horse over her head. That is a photograph I want to see full size, that is a photograph I want to examine more closely, that is a photograph I want to see explained.

But there is one of the problems I have with this book. The photographs are displayed, in the main, one to a page. There is nothing else on the page, nothing to distract from the picture, except a small white page number. There are no captions, no information about what we are seeing, until you turn right to the back of the book where you will find a list of photographs. Typically, what this tells you is as follows:

62  Margot Fonteyn
64  Corfu
65  PLF, Corfu
66  Phaestos
69  PLF, Kameiros, Rhodes

And that’s it, that’s all we get to know. This is not particularly fulsome information, there isn’t even a date. Admittedly, this seems to have been Joan Leigh Fermor’s fault, as a note at the head of this list says: “Unless Joan Leigh Fermor made a not of where a photograph was taken on the contact sheet, the location was not recorded.” As for dates, all we are told was that the London photographs date from 1940-41, and the rest between the 1940s and 1960s. It’s frustrating; many of the photographs are timeless, but those of rural Greek life are not, they are specific to a time and a place, and I suspect a lot of them are tied to particular local events and practices.

These are, for the most part, wonderful photographs and I could spend a lot of time looking at them. But they do leave me wanting to know more.

 

 

Cargo of Eagles

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I’m doing some fairly intense research reading at the moment, so I’m interspersing it with something a little lighter for relaxation. As part of that, I’ve just settled into another jag of reading Margery Allingham. First up, because I’m reading these books in no particular order, is Cargo of Eagles, which also happens to be her last book. Or rather, it was the novel she left unfinished when she died in 1966; it was finished by her husband, Youngman Carter, and published in 1968. I believe there were a couple of later books entirely written by Carter, though I’m not sure if these were based on incomplete manuscripts or outlines that Allingham had left.

Cargo of EaglesWhen you know that about a book going in, you find yourself inevitably looking for the join, and in this case I couldn’t spot it. Or rather, there are a number of possibilities, but nothing definite. For a start this is, in any case, late Allingham, and she had by this point gone off the boil somewhat. Campion had grown older (she always set her stories in the present, rather than the past, so she couldn’t revisit early episodes in his career), by now he should be well past retirement age. The closest she comes to acknowledging this is that he is absent for a large part of the story, and the focus is on a younger surrogate, Morty Kelsey. By trying to be contemporary, she makes part of the story about Mods and Rockers, though she doesn’t really get what they were about, and anyway, even in 1968 when the book finally appeared, they must have seemed old hat. And the ending feels both clunky and rushed, as though Campion knew the secret all along, in which case there was no need for the whole fol-de-rol of the story; but then, I’ve felt pretty much the same about other lateish works that I’ve read.

But put that aside, this is another of those little pocket universes that she created throughout her career, as in Traitor’s Purse, for instance, or More Work for the Undertaker. In other words it is a little bit of England that seems to be emotionally and culturally cut off from the rest of the country, the rest of the modern world. In this instance it is Saltey, a little bit of coastal marshland in Essex that isn’t on the way to anywhere. It was once the haunt of smugglers, and still carries on the practice; there’s a local myth of a demon that once caused mayhem throughout the village, and everyone is still happy to carry on believing it; and the families recorded in a centuries-old map are still the prominent families of the area, who have intermarried and and maintained their own particular secrets and rivalries down all the years. This is prime Allingham territory, where the particularities of place tend to outweigh the necessities of contemporary realism.

Into this individual setting, Allingham introduces buried treasure, a famous thief who has just got out of prison after 20 years, a mysterious thug who was once the accomplice of the thief and now seems to be back in the area, poison pen letters, a couple of murders, Mods and Rockers creating mayhem, an unlikely bequest, and Albert Campion on a mission for a shadowy secret service outfit. It all ties together, just about, though to say the pudding had been over-egged would be to underplay quite how much she tries to cram into the plot. And Campion is here more shadowy, less distinct a character than he had been in earlier books, as if Allingham has trouble picturing her aging hero in this particular milieu. Though the magnificent Lugg, more ancient even that Campion though you wouldn’t know it, remains as sharp and vivid as ever.

Yet for what I wanted, it was exactly right. A book I finished in a day, which is practically unheard of for me.

Pennies for the Guy

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Further to my post a little while back about Pete Atkin and Clive James, I’ve been playing a lot of their stuff on guitar recently. It’s challenging for a rank amateur like me because Atkin uses a lot of obscure chords and jazzy rhythms. Even so, there is something satisfying in, for instance, the transition from Em9 (020002) to A9 (xx2132) in the first line of “A King at Nightfall”.

But the curious thing about playing the same songs over and over again is that at first you lose the sense of the words because all of your concentration is on the chords. Then, suddenly, the words click back into focus and you start to see them in fresh ways.

The thing is, I’ve known and loved the songs of Atkin and James since I first encountered them in the early 70s. So I’ve got used to thinking of the lyrics simply in terms of their cleverness, their complex wordplay, the mass of cultural references that James jams into so many of the songs. But seeing them anew as I relearn the songs in a different way I’ve realized how slangy James’s writing could be (“Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field will be in it for the bread”), and more significantly how full of contemporary social observation that is simply taken for granted. So much so that I think some songs would probably be almost incomprehensible to a modern audience without a gloss.

Take, for example, the second verse of “Laughing Boy”:

A kid once asked me in late September for a shilling for the guy
And I looked that little operator in her wheeling-dealing eye
And I tossed a bob with deep respect in her old man’s trilby hat
It seems to me that a man like me could die of things like that

It’s a verse that has always delighted me, and for anyone my age, it’s probably perfectly clear. For anyone half my age? I haven’t seen any kid asking for pennies for the guy for years, probably for decades. So the resonances in this verse are going to be missed.

Bonfire Night is on 5th November (or, more commonly, the closest Saturday to that date). This is a pre-Christian festival of light that was adopted to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the prevention of the Gunpowder Plot. The practice was to make a guy, a figure made of old clothes stuffed with straw or something else combustible, which would be burned on top of the bonfire. During the week or two before Bonfire Night, children would take their guy around the neighbourhood collecting pennies for the guy; the pennies would then be used to buy fireworks for the event. That the girl in the song is asking for a shilling (12 pennies), twelve times the going rate, is therefore a sign of her entrepreneurship. And that she is asking for money in September places it around a month ahead of the usual time. (That it’s a girl is possibly also significant: collecting money for the guy was more often associated with boys.)

I tossed a bob (a slang term for shilling) in her old man’s (old man could mean husband or father, in this context it is pretty clearly father) trilby hat. In the late-60s/early 70s when this song was written, men didn’t often wear hats, they had fallen out of fashion, so they tended to be rare and expensive. The girl has probably stolen the hat, and may well, at the end, put it on the head of the guy to be burned.

So in a few lines we learn an awful lot about the characters in the song and about their milieu, but all in terms that have lost their meaning, their social context, over the nearly 50 years since it was written. That sort of particular observation is common in Clive James’s lyrics, but I am suddenly wondering how transparent they might be to a modern audience.

Pisseur de copie

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What I like about Muriel Spark is the sheer, take-no-prisoners, don’t-give-a-damn waspishness of her writing. At her best you need gloves to protect yourself from the venom that drips off the page. But you often don’t notice the sting because you are laughing, or at least nodding in recognition.

a far cry from kensingtonAnd nowhere is that more true than in A Far Cry from Kensington. It is not the insult, pisseur de copie, that Spark’s substantial alter ego, Mrs Hawkins, discovers, but the relish with which she repeats it, over and over again, sometimes several times a page.

Was there a real pisseur de copie, a real Hector Bartlett, who once aroused Muriel Spark’s ire? I think so. This novel has the air of something long delayed, a sort of literary revenge porn.

For much of the book, A Far Cry from Kensington, doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a disguised memoir. It is the  recitation of a sequence of incidents, sort-of connected but sort-of unconnected, that link the residents of a Kensington rooming house over a period of months in 1954-5. There is no through plot, but a series of anecdotes about the idiosyncratic characters that Mrs Hawkins works with at two different publishing houses and then at a literary magazine, about the girl in the rooming house who becomes pregnant but won’t reveal the father, about the Polish seamstress who becomes unhinged when she becomes the recipient of poison pen letters, about the medical student who will eventually become Mrs Hawkins’s second husband, about the easy-going woman who owns the rooming house, and so on. And yes, I can imagine Spark, when she was a girl of slender means just starting out in the publishing world, living in such a house, getting to know such people.

The only thread that binds all this together is the character of Hector Bartlett, the third-rate hack, the pisser of copy, who sees women only as figures to be manipulated to his own unjustified glorification. He already has his claws into a successful novelist, Emma Loy, but now he wants to manipulate Mrs Hawkins, to exploit her publishing contacts. When she rebuffs him and, in a moment of inspiration, calls him a pisseur de copie, he needs revenge. So we see how, primarily through Emma Loy, he twice gets Mrs Hawkins fired from her publishing jobs. We learn, after the fact, how he got at the Polish seamstress, pushing a crank remedy that sounds to me like a variation on the orgone box, and in the end probably responsible for the woman’s suicide. We suspect he might be the undeclared father of Isabel’s child.

Recalling all of this from the distance of some 30 years, Mrs Hawkins is now happily married to her medical student, and a successful literary figure in her own right. And Bartlett, whom she encounters one last time in that retreat of the British literary set, Tuscany, is still a pisser of copy.

Oh it is a bitter delight of a novel, crisp and stinging and vivid. This is why I keep reading Muriel Spark.

Brian W. Aldiss

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I have just signed and delivered the contract which means I will be writing a book on Brian Aldiss for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

This will be my third volume on a British science fiction writer, following the Modern Masters of Science Fiction volume on Iain Banks, which came out last year, and the volume on Christopher Priest that I am currently researching for Gylphi. It is also, in its way, the most problematic.

The Iain Banks book was scary, because I had never written a single work of that length before (my previous books had been collections of much shorter essays and reviews). But it was not at all scary in the sense that I knew Iain and liked (most of) his work; also, there was a single coherent narrative thread to follow, which simplified the process a great deal.

The Christopher Priest volume is slightly more problematic. I’ve known Chris a long time (he was my best man when I got married) so there is the issue of retaining a certain distance in what I write. And I am not planning to follow the same basic chronological structure that I did for the Banks book, this volume is meant to be more thematic in approach. In other words I am giving myself a little more of a structural challenge in writing the book, and I won’t really know until I am writing it whether I am up to that challenge.

But Aldiss is different. For a start, I am far more ambivalent about his work. Some of his fiction is, I think, wonderful; some of it, I think, is terrible. This is partly because Aldiss was an inveterate experimenter as a writer, and in the nature of things some experiments fail. He was also, at his peak, far more prolific than either Banks or Priest, and the scattergun technique means that a lot of the work did not hit the target. Yet, at his best he was one of the most important writers in the history of British science fiction, and somehow I have to get that dichotomy across, and explain it.

Also, he was a prickly bugger at the best of times. I remember, once, mildly disagreeing with his notion of the cosy catastrophe, and I received a postcard from him which, in effect, said: why do you hate me so? That was far from being the only such postcard I received. This prickliness, I think, comes across in his extreme ambivalence towards science fiction: he would extol it and decry it at one and the same time; he would encourage others and then try and distance himself from the genre; he would celebrate the crudest, pulpiest sf and then insist on being considered by mainstream standards; he wanted to be down in the gutter and up with the literary establishment all at the same time. I don’t think he ever resolved these contradictions, in his work or in his life. Do I have to resolve them? I certainly have to present them and try to explain them.

And structurally I feel the only way to cover the variety and the contradictions of his work is with something that is half way between the chronological approach of the Banks book and the thematic approach of the Priest book. Which means I have given myself another formal challenge just when I am approaching my most difficult subject yet.

Right now, I am pleased to have this challenge, and I am delighted if a little daunted to have the next two years plotted out for me. But my overwhelming reaction is to wonder: what on earth have I got myself into?

Shadowing the Clarke

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This time last year, I was engaged in the struggle to compile my personal shortlist for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award Shadow Jury. It was an interesting and revealing exercise. I was glad to step down from the Shadow Jury this year only because it is a time-consuming process and time is something I don’t have right now. But in every other respect, I was sorry to go and a part of me is itching to put together a personal shortlist again this year.

So why the hell not? Continue reading

Awards

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Iain M. BanksHow can sitting in bed drinking champagne be so exhausting? But last night was exhausting.

It started with the announcement of the BSFA Awards. My default response when I know I’ve been shortlisted for an award is to convince myself that I cannot win. But even so there’s a rogue part of the brain that’s going: maybe, just maybe … And then I saw a tweet. I am slow and clumsy on twitter, can never really make it work for me; so it turned out that Maureen had known the result for about a minute already and was just waiting to see how long it would be before I noticed.

The upshot is, I won. Or, to be more precise, my book, Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction) published by University of Illinois Press, won. It is now, what, 12 hours since I heard the news and I am still flabbergasted, surprised, delighted.

BSFA AwardFor the record, the full list of winners was:

Best Novel: Nina Allan – The Rift (Titan Books) (I am particularly pleased about this, I have been saying how wonderful this book is ever since I read it.)

Best Shorter Fiction: Anne Charnock – The Enclave (NewCon Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Paul Kincaid – Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press)

Best Artwork:
Joint winners:
Jim Burns – Cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates (NewCon Press)
Victo Ngai – Illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang (Tor.com)

My heartiest congratulations to all.

Then, less than an hour later, came the announcement of the shortlists for the Hugo Awards, and my book was on the list in the Best Related Work category. I’ve known about this for a week or so, but it was a relief that it was now out in the open (I hate keeping secrets). And coming immediately after winning the BSFA Award it was elating in a way that just learning the news in an official email from the award administrators hadn’t been.

hugo awardYou can see the full list of nominees here, but the shortlist for the Best Related Work is:

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoe Quinn (PublicAffairs)

Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press)

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press)

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal (Twelfth Planet Press)

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Liz Bourke (Aqueduct Press)

That is some serious opposition (and isn’t it nice to see this curiously hodgepodge category given over entirely to serious critical work). I’m proud to be in this company; let’s celebrate them all.

Greece

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Many years ago, not long after Maureen and I had got together, we went up to Edinburgh to visit her friend Moira. At one point, Moira got out a bunch of photographs she had taken while on holiday in Greece some ten years before (in other words, let me be clear, some ten years before I even knew Moira existed). In one photograph, taken on the Acropolis, the central figure, perfectly framed and in sharp focus, striding directly towards the camera, was me.

Somehow, that weird coincidence encapsulates Greece for me. It is a locus made up of coincidences and connections, it is where all things come together.

Greece

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), Study for a poster. Tempera on cardboard, 1948. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

I first encountered Greece (if that is the right way to put it) through Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which remains one of the funniest books I know, and also one of the loveliest. This led me inevitably to the work of his brother, Larry, particularly those exquisite travel books, Reflections on a Marine Venus and Bitter Lemons. From Lawrence Durrell I moved on to his friend, Henry Miller, and The Colossus of Marousi, the only one of Miller’s books I’ve been able to read with unalloyed pleasure.

That is one set of connections. Another set sprang also from Durrell, in a way. I developed a taste for travel literature, which I kept up for quite a few years until I OD’d on the stuff while reviewing it for places like The Good Book Guide and British Book News. Along the way I happened upon a book called A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. When, as a result, I grabbed everything I could by Fermor, it was somehow no surprise that this led me back to Greece. (Although it seems only tangential to my literary discovery of Greece, I also devoured anything on TV relating to the country, such as the 1970s series like The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays the Ferryman?, and of course old films such as the Dirk Bogarde wartime adventure, Ill Met By Moonlight which seemed to be on TV endlessly when I was young. And Bogarde, of course, was playing Paddy Leigh Fermor, though it took me a little while to make that connection.)

In truth, the more I read about Leigh Fermor (and I’ve read biographies and letters and the like) the less I think I would have liked him in person. He was an incurable snob who spent much of his life freeloading on the rich and aristocratic types he fawned over. And yet I find him endlessly fascinating: he wrote like a dream, of course, and he had a genuine and admirable gift for friendship. He seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the postwar world of art and letters, and everyone loved Paddy.

ghika craxton fermor

Niko Ghika, John Craxton, Joan Fermor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Barbara Ghika

Two of his lifelong friendships were with the Greek painter, Niko Ghika, and the English painter, John Craxton. (To give you a glimpse of what a peculiar world this was, Craxton first went to Greece immediately after the Second World War when he was encouraged to do so by the wife of an ambassador, who then gave him a lift in a bomber. “Of course she did,” Maureen commented, when I pointed this story out to her.) Now this triumvirate is the focus of an exhibition at the British Museum. I will probably write about this exhibition at greater length when I’ve had a chance to absorb the substantial catalogue that goes with it. For now, these are a few initial thoughts.

Although Leigh Fermor was clearly the glue binding this group together, he was strangely absent from this exhibition, or at least he was out of the limelight. He was there in photographs, in quotations from some of his books and articles dotted about the place, but the focus, rightly, was on the magnificent paintings by Ghika and particularly Craxton. Though it was amusing to see a handful of Leigh Fermor’s letters on display, all with “IN HASTE” scrawled across the top; that seemed to be the only way he ever wrote anything.

ghikaGhika’s paintings could be, I think, somewhat disturbing. They were crowded with labyrinthine twists and turns in which the more you looked at them the more you seemed to be lost. But they were overgrown with a profusion of plants and leaves and flowers, a riot of colours, as if they were something out of a Jeff VanderMeer novel. And there, among Ghika’s friends, among the regular visitors to his home on Hydra, was George Katsimbalis, who was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Marousi, which brings us back round to tie in another set of connections.

craxtonBut the work we both fell in love with was by John Craxton. Bold lines, often very few colours, and an incredible vigorous sense of life, especially in the numerous paintings of groups of men around cafe tables or performing Greek dances. I’d seen his work before, since he provided the cover illustrations for all of Leigh Fermor’s books from Mani onwards, but I hadn’t realised this until we got to the exhibition. There is something pivotal in his work, we kept catching echoes of Paul Nash in one direction, Picasso in another, and was there something Ruralist or even possibly Preraphaelite in some individual pictures? Certainly I need to see more of his work.

 

The Big Book of Grant

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I have several shelves full of books devoted to the American Civil War. They are, almost without exception, big books. If they are not multi-volume works (three, four, even eight volumes is not unusual), they are generally an inch or more thick. There is something about the Civil War that encourages detail and prolixity. Perhaps it is because the Civil War is something that engenders obsession: you don’t read casually about the war, or at least not for long; rather the war encourages a love of the minute, the nuanced, the minute-by-minute, item-by-item precision that fills these books. And that counts not just for the histories of the war, but also for the biographies of its prominent participants. There is no such thing as a thin book on Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln, and most particularly not on Ulysses S. Grant.

grantIn which case, the 1,000+ pages of Ron Chernow’s new biography is par for the course. It’s a good book, in the sense that a good biography should help you see the subject more clearly and understand their life or work more thoroughly. In truth I don’t think I learned anything new from the one-third of the book devoted to the four years of the Civil War; but then, I have, over the years, immersed myself in that conflict pretty thoroughly so it would have been a little unexpected if anything in this part of the book surprised me. But I learned a great deal from the one-third of the book devoted to the eight years he spent as President, and particularly the years after the presidency. For instance, I had not appreciated the extent to which he became a politician only after he left the White House. And though I knew he was gullible all his life when it came to business, the extent to which he was bamboozled by those he trusted is still a shock. Nor had any of my previous reading prepared me for the very gruesome details of the cancer that ate away his tongue and throat.

Moreover, like every book I have ever read about America in the 19th century, it is crammed full of those coincidences and connections that makes it seem that this vast country and huge population must actually have been very small and contained. At one point, Grant’s father worked for John Brown’s father, and indeed worked alongside Brown.

Yet at the same time, it is a frustrating book, a book that annoyed me in several ways. One of the most irritating ways is when it comes to chronology. We live our lives in time, there is a sequence to everything, and though that sequence, A then B then C then …, isn’t the be-all and end-all of things it is important to provide a shape. I don’t want to read a biography that mechanically tells me: first he did this, then he did that, then he did something else. That isn’t a helpful way of understanding a life. But at the same time, I don’t want to read a biography where you are constantly having to stop and ask: hang on, did this come before that? Chernow is rather too prone to letting the chronology get hopelessly mixed up.

Sometimes this is trivial. After leaving the White House Grant embarked on what turned into a world tour. Chernow explains, in sometimes exhaustive detail, how Grant and his party arrived in Liverpool, went on to Manchester, then to London, and then Belgium, Germany, Italy. And then, having got Grant to Italy, he suddenly starts talking about a speech Grant gave in Newcastle. When did this happen? Did Grant travel back from Italy to Britain? Or was this before he went to London? There is no clue. But later, when Grant is cruising the Mediterranean, his itinerary takes him to Italy, and Chernow distinctly implies that this was his only visit to the country. So what, we are suddenly wondering, about that visit after Germany. And so it goes on. If we follow Chernow, that tour seems to have been a remarkable zig-zag affair.

Of course, the exact itinerary of his world tour probably doesn’t matter over much in the grand scheme of things. But there is a similar disregard of chronology in several places during the account of the Civil War. Some of these I identified only because I am pretty thoroughly immersed in the details of that war, but all of them tend to confuse the issue of what happened where and when. And then, during the coverage of Grant’s presidency, we are continually being told that in November he did this, but in July he did that, with no idea whether this was the previous July or the following July, whether one action was the cause or the consequence of the other.

The chronological confusions of the book are a structural problem, but there is also a thematic problem that I found frustrating.

Grant was an alcoholic. Drinking was endemic in the peacetime army that he joined as a young man, and during the years before the Civil War when he consistently failed at every business he attempted, he drank even more. It didn’t take much to get him hopelessly drunk. He drank most when he was bored, or when he was away from his wife, Julia, whom he doted on. He was certainly drunk at several points during the Civil War, but never at moments of action. After the war, when he was more consistently in the presence of his family, he started to master his drinking. During his presidency, and again during his world tour when he was regularly hosted at banquets by the rich and powerful, there are consistent stories that he would turn his wine glass upside down and refuse all drink except water. His epic battle against alcoholism was so successful that at the end of his life, when doctors were regularly prescribing whiskey or brandy to alleviate the pain of his cancer, he was unable to drink the stuff.

Of course, his early drinking was the stuff of legend, and throughout his life his enemies (of whom he had many), his rivals (of whom he had even more), and those who were simply jealous or mischievous, would inevitably spread stories about him being drunk and incapable. Most of these stories were malicious, the vast majority were demonstrably untrue (particularly later in his life), and many of the rest were wildly exaggerated. They damaged him, but not really all that much. Lincoln’s response to stories of Grant’s drinking, when he suggested that they should send a case of Grant’s favourite whiskey to every other general in the army in the hope that it would encourage them to fight as well, seems to have been typical of how most people responded. Certainly, stories of his drinking never seemed to have dulled the lustre of his name in the public eye.

Chernow is, understandably, anxious to get at the truth of Grant’s alcoholism and his victory over it. This is commendable. But it leads him to recount, in often excessive detail, every one of the malicious tales of Grant’s drinking. So much so that at times they overwhelm the narrative. The chapters on the Civil War sometimes seem to spend longer recounting Grant’s battles with drink than they do recounting his battles with the Confederates, even though many (or indeed most) of the battles with drink were entirely fictitious. And after the war, when Grant’s drinking had for the most part stopped, Chernow still regularly halts the narrative in order to give yet another false or at least highly unlikely account of Grant being drunk and incapable. The result is that at times the subject of Grant’s drinking seems to overwhelm everything else, and the falsehoods about his drunkenness take up greater space and gain greater weight than the facts of the case.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent book well worth your time and attention. But the way Grant’s alcoholism, and perhaps even more the stories about his drinking, are handled tends to overbalance the book somewhat. And Chernow’s problems with chronology, an issue oddly common in rather too many biographies, is something I find particularly irritating.