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It was the year I turned ten. I didn’t yet realize how grey the world was, how limited; these were things I would discover over the coming years. But this year, no, this was a year for watching Dixon of Dock Green (I hated it even then: so dull, so full of nice people being nice) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (which I loved because I didn’t yet have an inkling of how much better pop music could be). I was ten, my world was limited to the television (I saw nothing wrong with the Black and White Minstrels except for their choice of music, and was irritated by Billy Cotton’s Band Club without being able to say why), to football in the street (that, I think, was the year I got a Manchester United football kit for Christmas; how quickly that ended, not because of any imagined danger, our road was wide and quiet, but because I didn’t enjoy football), and to beginning to think about going to the big school (I read a lot of school stories, and as a result was starting to think about Manchester Grammar School; well that never happened).

My horizons were narrow in that narrow little year, but then, I suspect everyone’s horizons were narrow. We none of us saw how it was all going to change, how dramatically, how radically, how quickly.

Which is David Kynaston’s thesis in his latest book. The previous volumes in his magisterial “Tales of a New Jerusalem” have been big books. So big, indeed, that they have been broken into two volumes each by the time they make paperback (the most recent one, Modernity Britain, had been published in two volumes even in hardback. And within that expanse they had covered a lot of ground: Austerity Britain took us from 1945 to 1951, Family Britain from 1951 to 1957, Modernity Britain from 1957 to 1962. But the new volume, On the Cusp: Days of ’62, is slim, barely 200 pages, and its focus is limited to a few short months in the middle of 1962. It opens, as the last volume ended, in the middle of June 1962, roughly at the point when Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain was published. It ends, very precisely, on 5th October, with just two people paying to watch the Rolling Stones perform at the Woodstock pub in North Cheam (oh how redolent of Tony Hancock and the whole black and white feel of 1950s Britain that address is).

On the Cusp follows the pattern that Kynaston has made his own in these books. He takes us day-by-day, month-by-month through the period under consideration, gives us headlines, the shape of political and economic affairs, looks at the books and essays of the time to get a sense of how these political and economic affairs were being viewed. But he intersperses all of this with diary entries, often culled from Mass Observation, to give us the picture of people shopping, going to the cinema or theatre, watching television, listening to music. There’s a lot about what was on television, because that was what was coming to dominate people’s leisure time. 1962 was when Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week That Was were first aired (saw them both, loved them both), and also Hugh and I, the first of the seemingly interminable and resolutely unfunny Terry Scott comedies that I hated from the start. It is oddly off-putting at first, a mass of seemingly disconnected information, quotes from ordinary people and from people who were about to become famous. On that storied day in October 1962, as the book ends, for example, we learn that Sandra Goodrich (15, the future Sandie Shaw) was working in a Ford factory in Dagenham; Glenda Jackson, 26, was being described as “pale and edgy” in a review of a play by the Watford Observer; Tom McGrath, 21, founding editor of International Times, was running a jazz club in Glasgow; John Ravenscroft (23, future John Peel) was selling crop hail insurance in Texas; Sandy Denny, 15, was at school in New Malden; and “Roy Strong (27, future youthful extrovert director of the National Portrait Gallery) was an assistant keeper there and still living wholly in the past”; and so on, four pages of such glimpses. And yet the more you read, the more you become attuned to the sights and sounds and smells and feel of quotidian reality in that now long gone age.

There’s a chapter that focuses largely on agriculture and on rural living, and another that looks primarily at life in Wales. We see the Night of the Long Knives, but don’t really see how fragile the Macmillan government was. On the surface this is still the 1950s, a Britain that hasn’t changed, that isn’t going to change, that sees no point in changing.

And yet …

We get the first oblique references to Christine Keeler, a diary column in Queen magazine that named no names but refers to a chauffeur-driven Zil arriving at her front door as a chauffeur-driven Humber leaves from her back door. It is not public yet, but the Profumo scandal is about to burst, and bring the government down with it. There is a letter written by someone senior at Bovis referring to Councillor Smith, who is T. Dan Smith. It is not public yet, but the whole corruption scandal in the North East is about to burst. There are people living in slum housing whose landlord is Peter Rachman. It is not public yet, but the scandal of the slum landlords is about to break. And we see the Beatles recording their first single, “Love Me Do”, which is released on 5th October. And we see the lukewarm response to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the latest example of gritty, northern, New Wave cinema (everything was New Wave in the 50s and early 60s, from films to fashion, science fiction was late getting in on the act). But on 5th October, the same day that the Beatles release their first single, Dr No is released, heralding a new wave of fast-paced, glamorous, colourful British cinema.

The Sixties is about to begin in earnest.

And me, I turned ten just two weeks before “Love Me Do” and Dr No appeared simultaneously. I have vivid memories of seeing the Beatles on Thank Your Lucky Stars, their first appearance on national TV in Britain. I also have a vivid memory of watching Dr No in the cinema; but I was only ten, I couldn’t have done – but I can remember it. All of that was to come in the next year. But 1962 was when it all changed, did we but know it.

From a distance


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So, for a couple of days there at the start of the year my plan to get back to reading more seemed to be working. But then it hit a brick wall. Not the result of any of the physiological or psychological problems of last year, but simply because I had started writing. I began, right on schedule, work on my next book, and I don’t read as much when I’m writing: the words going round and round in my head need to be my words, not someone else’s. But I’m taking a brief break from writing, largely because I’ve been suffering sciatica in my right leg, and sitting at my desk for long periods is proving uncomfortable. So, before I get on to the next chapter, I thought I owed myself a chance for my leg to rest up a bit. And therefore I’ve been reading. In particular I’ve been reading The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee, an author I’d not come across before.

The novel begins on Friday 13th November 1903, when octogenarian Andrew Haswell Green is shot and killed by a stranger in front of his Park Avenue home. The novel then moves back through his life, and forwards through the repercussions of his murder. Let me say right from the start that it is an interesting structure, very well handled, and the result is an excellent novel.

Except, at first, I didn’t believe in the character. This Andrew Green is from a poor farming family who goes on to become the guiding force behind the creation of Central Park, the person who oversaw the introduction of the New York Public Library along with the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History, he was the person who oversaw the recovery of the city after the overthrow of Boss Tweed, he was behind the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he pushed through the uniting of the five boroughs to create Greater New York which was also known as the Great Mistake. Yeah, I thought: if you want to write about the radical transformation of New York in the latter years of the nineteenth century you’ve got all the material you could want here. But putting all of this at the feet of one man, and then having that man go on to be murdered in a bizarre shooting, is asking us to swallow a bit much, isn’t it?

So I went away and checked. Andrew Haswell Green was a real person. Andrew Haswell Green did everything on that list. Andrew Haswell Green was killed in exactly this way.

Andrew Haswell Green

So my question is: how in all my readings on American history have I never come across this man? How has he disappeared from history? (In an oddly moving penultimate chapter, Lee steps forward to tell us that the one statue of Green was crated up and lost, the one portrait of him still hangs in City Hall but in a place where it can’t be seen by the public, a laboratory in his name at New York University was torn down. The only genuine surviving monument to the man appears to be a bench bearing his name in an obscure corner of Central Park.) And with all of that in mind, how come there aren’t dozens of other novels about him, because the man is surely a gift?

Not that I especially warmed to Andrew Green. He is an austere, pernickety, lonely man. But that is part of the point. Given how much of this novel is based on fact, I’m assuming this is too, but the main point of the novel is an unconsummated homosexual romance between Green and Samuel Tilden. (I do know about Tilden: he was the losing Democratic contender in the disputed presidential election of 1876; though I didn’t, of course, know of his connection with Green.) Tilden died a bachelor, as did Green, and they were long time friends and colleagues. There is nothing definitive to suggest that either was homosexual, though at the time discretion on such matters, particularly in the higher reaches of political and economic life, was taken to extraordinary lengths. And Lee is similarly discreet: early in the novel there’s a passage where Tilden introduces Green to an elite private library, but then severs the relationship on the advice of other members of the library. At the time, Green (and therefore the reader) takes this to be on grounds of class; looking back, there may be more to it. But then, this is a relationship which never goes beyond occasionally holding hands. Both men achieve much, but are left lonely and disappointed.

Incidentally, I don’t think that the disputed election is meant to be a reference to recent politics. Tilden’s political life is barely mentioned in the novel. But Boss Tweed, who appears only once late in the novel, appears like the spitting image of Donald Trump, and I’m sure that’s not accidental.

As for the murder: Green was killed by a poor black man who mistook him for someone else. The man had, years before, had an affair with a prostitute and was now convinced that she was being kept from him by a rich protector called Green. Except that the prostitute was now one of the richest women in New York with a string of properties across the city, and to protect her elite clientele, she referred to them by code names of her own devising, including Mr Brown, Mr Green, Mr Grey and so on. The murder is another Great Mistake. Though the chapters concerning the police detective who unravels this are perhaps the only parts of the novel played as comedy. The murderer would live out his days in an insane asylum, the detective would be killed on a new case; I assume both are real.

Green’s discreet, lonely, emotionally unfulfilled life is conveyed also in the way the novel is written. We are told constantly about the thoughts and feeling of different characters, yet we never feel that we are inside their heads. Even the description of their thoughts seems to come from outside, from a distance. And I’m sure this is intentional, because distance is referred to constantly throughout the book, and always with approbation. Of the city, we are told: “The trick to living here was to find a form of distance from the city itself.” Again: “The Battery was a spot that had perfected a quality Andrew thought of often: distance.” And when Washington Roebling is showing Green and Tilden the work on Brooklyn Bridge: “On the New York side, so small, so distant now, the first stone had not even been laid.”

This is a strange and full life, but it can only ever be known, only ever understood, from a distance.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Benjamin Black


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I first came across John Banville sometime in the mid-1970s when his novel Kepler came out. I bought the hardback, loved it (I reviewed a subsequent reprint of the book), and since then I have read just about everything he has written. There are few contemporary writers I keep up with as assiduously I do Banville (Graham Swift and William Boyd come to mind), but his work is incredibly various. The historical ones, (Kepler, Doctor Copernicus), were vivid and convincing; his novel based on Anthony Blunt, The Untouchable, is sharp and engaging; but others, such as his Booker Prize winner, The Sea, seem to me so etiolated that you have to fight your way through a fog of allusive prose to find out what didn’t happen.

I have seen Banville speak a couple of times, once specifically on Georges Simenon. I can’t think of two more different writers than the author of The Sea and the author of Maigret, and yet there was an obvious connection between the two. So it was no great surprise that he started writing crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, starting with Christine Falls in 2006. The Black novels are hardly Simenonesque, the prose, while tighter than some of his John Banville novels, is still a lot looser, more elaborate, than you are likely to find in Simenon. But in these novels plot is to the fore, and they are indeed good plot-driven stories.

Most, though by no means all, of the Benjamin Black novels feature an alcoholic Dublin pathologist, Quirke. And they are interconnected in the way that they use the crime as a way of digging into the abusive control of 1950s Dublin society by the Catholic Church, and the corruption of the political class sheltering behind the power of the Church. This is an impoverished, grey Dublin where the physical and sexual abuse of children in Church-run orphanages and schools is an accepted part of life. There are few if any characters in the Benjamin Black novels who are not in some way damaged by the very society they inhabit.

Banville made no secret that he and Benjamin Black were one and the same. The books tended to declare on the cover: By John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It was rather like the difference between Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks: the two names allowed the author to take different liberties with their writing.

Then, a year ago, a new John Banville novel appeared: Snow. And it was a crime novel, indeed it was a very distinctive Benjamin Black novel, yet the name Black appeared nowhere on it. It was a crime novel set in 1950s Ireland, and though there is a new central character, the rather austere and lonely protestant, Detective Inspector Strafford, Quirke does get a passing mention. And it is a novel that features corruption in high places, and the malign influence of the Church.

Now there is what is advertised as a new Strafford novel, April in Spain. Only Strafford doesn’t even appear until more than half way through the book, and even then mostly plays a supporting role. The central character is Quirke, and the story itself is a direct sequel, set four years later, to the third of the Benjamin Black Quirke novels, Elegy for April (2011). In that earlier novel, incest within the family of a prominent government minister results in a boy admitting to murdering his sister, April, and then committing suicide. Now, reluctantly on holiday in Spain with his new wife, Quirke encounters a doctor at the local hospital and recognizes her as April.

Quirke immediately telephones his daughter, Phoebe, who had been a friend of April’s. Phoebe tells the Dublin police, who arrange that Detective Inspector Strafford should travel out to Spain with her to confirm the identification, and to try to discover why her brother had confessed to her murder. But Phoebe also tells April’s uncle, the cabinet minister, which is why a one-time associate of the Kray twins is also heading out to Spain with a gun.

This is not a novel in which mysteries are solved, which I suppose brings it closer to earlier John Banville novels. But truths are uncovered, political repercussions are felt, and there are tragedies. It is a gripping novel, I read it in a day which is something I haven’t done much of recently.

Curiously, I notice that the John Banville Bibliography on Wikipedia does not list Snow, and counts April in Spain as a Benjamin Black novel, which it explicitly is not. Clearly some people are still confused by the identities of Banville and Black.

Checkmate in Berlin


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[This is by way of an experiment, albeit one I fully expect to fail, or more accurately one I suspect will fizzle out into silence before too long. Whenever I do my roundup of the books I’ve read during the year, I find that books I remember having lots of things to say about at the time I was reading them, end up with some bland remarks in my summary. Ah, if only I had written about them as the year went by. Except, I’ve thought about this many times in the past, and the idea has faded to nothingness if it ever even got started. And anyway, there are plenty of books I read where there really isn’t much to say about them. Look at all the Maigrets I’ve been reading recently, wouldn’t endless blogs eventually stutter into dull repetition over the weeks? So as often as not the idea has died before it ever really got started. But I can’t get rid of the idea completely, it keeps coming back to haunt me. So I’m going to give it a go for one year, if only to prove once and for all that I don’t have the stamina to keep it going for a full year. So let’s see how far I can get …]

I cannot remember when I first heard about the Berlin Airlift. It was almost certainly during my schooldays, because I have a vague memory that I once wrote an essay in class about the airlift. But though it lodged in my mind as a curious and rather dramatic interlude in the story of Cold War relations, I never really knew much in the way of detail about the event. Did it last for just a few weeks, or for a year or more? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. (in fact it was just short of a full year.)

Which is why I found Checkmate in Berlin so interesting. It is, at the same time, the most detailed and the most straightforward account you could hope to find.

Milton begins with the Yalta Conference in February 1945, which we can safely identify as the starting point for the Cold War. Roosevelt was dying and really wasn’t up to the argy-bargy and excessive drinking that any conference with Stalin involved. Churchill, meanwhile, was drunk most of the time, didn’t bother reading his briefing papers, and was inclined to make promises that caught everyone on his staff completely off-guard. (I couldn’t help noticing how closely this unflattering portrait of Churchill resembled our own dear Churchillian leader.) As for Stalin, he was, as ever, forensic and brutal. He made demands that the others were too weak or too dull-witted to resist; and he made promises that he had no intention of keeping though the others fell on them with relief. George Kennan (one of the stars of Louis Menand’s The Free World, so I was familiar with this part of the story) understood exactly what Stalin was doing and where Soviet foreign policy was heading, but it would be another couple of years before his clear-eyed analysis would be recognised and adopted by the US State Department.

This failure by the West to understand that the Soviet Union was no longer their reliable wartime ally would be a feature of international relations, in Europe and particularly in Berlin, for the next several years. The Russians raced to capture Berlin and large chunks of Germany; the British and Americans hesitated, moved slowly, and worked on the unshakeable principle that they must do nothing to upset their Soviet allies. Despite a binding agreement to split Berlin into three sectors, Russian, British and American (the French sector was carved out of the British and American sectors some time later, though the French were barely acknowledged by the Russians), British and American troops and administrators were prevented from entering the city for several weeks while the Soviets openly looted it, and kidnapped a host of scientists, engineers and their families, many of whom would never see Germany again. When the British and Americans finally reached the parts of the city they were supposed to administer, they found no infrastructure, no machinery, no intact buildings, no medicines, and virtually no food or drinkable water.

The real miracle of Berlin was how quickly and how effectively the military administrations of the Western sectors made the city at least barely liveable. The two men chosen to head up the western sectors seem to have been unusually well-chosen, though you might not think so from their names: Colonel Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley for the Americans and Brigadier Robert “Looney” Hinde for the Brits. Initially Hinde was more reluctant to antagonise the Russians than Howley was, though the two eventually formed a good team countering Russian provocations. But in time, of course, Hinde was replaced by somebody totally unsuited to the job, a stiff, by the letter military man with no obvious redeeming features at all, which left the British side slow to react as tensions escalated towards the blockade.

Of course, the Russians were single-minded in their approach to Berlin. They wanted to squeeze the West out of the city, take over Germany, and protect the Soviet Union with a cordon sanitaire of Soviet-friendly puppet states. Indeed before the war had even ended they had flown in Walter Ulbricht with a team dedicated to securing a smooth transition to communist rule. The trouble is, they bodged it. They knew that an overtly communist rule would be unpopular (the officially sanctioned rape and looting that Russian troops had perpetrated on first entering the city had seen to that) so they helped to establish a centrist Social Democrat party, but then on the eve of city-wide elections, they used bribery, intimidation and straightforward threats to arrange a merger of the Social Democrats with the German Communist Party. But they had misjudged the mood of the city and in the subsequent elections the new Socialist Unity Party was soundly defeated. Only the Russians didn’t admit defeat, they installed their own people in the city government regardless of the election results, they refused to allow the popular Ernst Reuter to be installed as mayor, and they created their own police force under the leadership of a former Nazi thug.

Even so, there were powerful voices in both Washington and London who wanted to continue to appease the Soviets. But the defection of a Soviet diplomat in Canada, and the subsequent discovery of the atom spies, helped to change attitudes. Meanwhile in Berlin Howley in particular had been convinced that the Soviets had to be stopped, and he proved adept at winning the propaganda war. Eventually, the Russians fell back on coercion. In June 1948 they closed all the land routes to Berlin, and shut off supplies of food and fuel. While Howley in Berlin called for an airlift of supplies, the new British administrator in Berlin, General Herbert, predicted the western allies would be defeated by October, and the government in Washington was similarly pessimistic. But the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that “under no circumstances will we leave Berlin.” And after that it was impossible for the Americans to withdraw unilaterally. The problem with an airlift was that it would require a minimum of 4,500 tons of food a day to keep the city alive, which worked out at 1,800 flights a day. How the logistics of all this were worked out and maintained, even through the weeks of freezing fog in that impossibly cold autumn when flights were often impossible, is an absolutely gripping story.

I have read and enjoyed other stuff by Giles Milton. He is a good storyteller, and marshals the fact well so it is always clear what happened and why. But I suspect this could be his best to date.

A year of big books and little reading


It happened just before Christmas 2020. I got up early one morning, and felt as if I had walked into a meteor shower. I was beset by flashing lights in my right eye. I managed to get in to see my optician, and was reassured that there was nothing seriously wrong, and the problems in my right eye would settle down quickly, except perhaps for an occasional floater. (This proved absolutely spot on.) However, there was something worrying in my left eye: a build up of cells behind the lens that was put in when I had my cataracts done. If it got any worse, it could be fixed with laser treatment.

Over the next few months it did get worse, if I closed my right eye, everything I saw was blurred. As a consequence my eyes were tired more and more of the time, which in turn meant that I did less and less reading. It just felt like a strain every time I picked up a book. By late spring I was back at the opticians, and she got on to the NHS about the laser treatment. A couple of months later I got a call from the hospital to have my eyes tested. This confirmed everything the optician had said, including showing me an image of the build up of cells. Then I just had to wait for an appointment for the treatment itself. Which eventually came during the autumn.

Now my sight is more or less back to normal, and I can read without strain or tiredness. But during the long summer months something psychological was triggered, perhaps a knock-on effect of all the stresses brought on by the pandemic. I just didn’t want to read: I found it hard to open a book (almost physically so) and harder still to concentrate. That condition is, perhaps, beginning to ease no slightly right at the end of the year, though there is still a hesitation when it comes to picking up a book, even a book I’ve already started reading and which I am enjoying. One other thing I have noticed is that I find it far easier and more satisfying to read non-fiction rather than fiction, even though there is a pile of novels I very much want to have read. And I have, for whatever reason, turned to an awful lot of very long books this year.

The end result of all that physiological and psychological weirdness is that I have read no more than half the number of books I would normally get through in a year. Indeed there were several months in which I only managed to get through one book. There was a moment in November, after the eye operation, when I thought I would end the month having read nothing.

Still, I did do some reading, and as is my usual habit at this time of year, here is the list of what I have read:

Alastair Gray – Paradise: Posthumously published, this was the final part of Gray’s translation of the Divine Comedy. It lacks the interior illustrations, and I think the text would, in normal circumstances, have had at least one more going over by Gray, because the whole thing doesn’t quite have the zest of the two earlier volumes. But the fact that we have it at all is a wonder.

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi: I probably don’t need to add much to the praise this book has received. In fact I’m not quite as enthusiastic as some people seem to be, perhaps because I found myself distracted by too many echoes of too many other works. But it is an excellent novel.

Georges Simenon – The Flemish House: So we have continued the habit of me reading Simenon’s Maigret novels aloud to Maureen. The writing is astonishing, for books that are invariably 11 chapters long and 150 pages, he manages to pack in so much variety, so much observation, so much wry humour. They are an object lesson for any writer.

William Boyd – Trio: I do like Boyd as a writer, and this is, indeed, good, but not quite among his best. I wrote at greater length about it here.

D.J. Taylor – The Prose Factory: There is some interesting stuff in here, but boy do you have to search for it. Taylor is not a good writer, his interests are quite narrow, and he draws on the same examples time and again. But still there are bits here worth reading. I wrote about it here.

J.B. Priestley – An Inspector Calls: To my mind, one of the great plays. I’ve seen it on stage and screen and read it more than once. This time I was writing about it for Vector’s special issue on class.

Philip Kerr – A Quiet Flame: Kerr’s Bernie Gunther sequence is quite extraordinary, not so much for the crimes told as for the milieu in which they are set: the rise of the Nazi party, the mess of post-war Germany, and, here, the flight of ex-Nazi’s to South America.

Lisa Walters – Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Science and Politics: Around this time I had been dipping in to Ritchie Robertson’s huge book on the Enlightenment (see below). While he didn’t refer to Margaret Cavendish at all, there was a point where he was talking about natural philosophy in the middle of the 17th century that made me think about Cavendish and her contemporaries. So this book, and the next two on the list, along with a host of essays and bits of other books and the like, were the necessary precursor to a longish essay I wrote about Cavendish, and which is due in the next issue of Foundation.

Kathleen Jones – Margaret Cavendish: A Glorious Fame

Margaret Cavendish – The Blazing World

Bae Myung-Hoon – Tower: The travails of the year left me less able to read science fiction than any other form of fiction. But this was one of the few exceptions, a superb book that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.

Peter Hennessy – Winds of Change: Another of Hennessy’s rather dense political histories. In this instance he covers the few years of Tory (mis)rule between the start of the Sixties and Harold Wilson’s election triumph. As so often with Hennessy there is rather too much detail about who said what in Cabinet, and not quite enough about the social context in which these events happened. The Profumo Affair, for instance, seems to happen in a cultural vacuum unconnected to social and sexual changes that were starting to take place. And being Hennessy he is rather more forgiving of the Tories than I would be. But there is still a lot of interesting stuff in here.

Georges Simenon – The Madman of Bergerac

Richard Thompson – Beeswing: One of the best autobiographies by a musician that I’ve read. I wrote about it here.

Helen MacInnes – Ride a Pale Horse: Maureen, who has been dutifully buying me a new Helen MacInnes for every gift0giving opportunity, informs me that I am now nearing the end. But still there are books I’d not encountered before for me to enjoy.

Helen Fry – MI9: This should have been so good, only it wasn’t, as I say here.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun: I reviewed this novel for Strange Horizons. I was more generous to the book than just about any other sf critic I read; but I was more critical of the book than just about any mainstream reviewer I read. The thing is, there are two scenes around the mid-point of the novel that are extraordinarily good, but then the whole thing fizzles out into one of the most awful endings you are likely to encounter. So it goes.

David Edmonds – The Murder of Professor Schlick: During the summer I got into some rather heavy books on philosophy, of which this was perhaps the lightest but also the best. It helped to generate this post on the subject.

Peter Carey – The Chemistry of Tears: I love most (though not quite all) of Carey’s work, and I had been meaning to read this novel for years without ever actually getting around to it. So this year I made certain, and it is good. Not his best, but very good.

Kate Atkinson – Behinds the Scenes at the Museum: Atkinson has, ever since Life After Life, become one of my favourite novelists, but I had for some reason never gout around to reading her first novel. I’m glad I’ve done so now, it really is excellent.

Wolfram Eilenberger – Time of the Magicians: The other big book on philosophy that I read during the summer (and yes, I also cover it in this post).

Georges Simenon – The Misty Harbour

Georges Simenon – The Man From London: This was a bit of an experiment, one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, to see if I got along with it as well as Maigret. Many, many years ago, I tried reading a Simenon, The Brothers Rico, and didn’t get on with it at all, so I was interested to see what the difference was. In fact this is much the same length as a Maigret novel, as tightly written as a Maigret novel, but it is darker, a sense of doom hangs about the characters right from the start. I did enjoy it, though.

Ritchie Robertson – The Enlightenment: It took me months to work my way through this book. It is huge and dense and complex. And it is fascinating. Some of the thoughts inspired by the book came out in this post.

Ivy Roberts (ed) – Futures of the Past: An oddly haphazard collection of early science fiction that I was asked to review for Vector. I wrote a longish review, around 1,500 words, but happened to mention in passing that my notes on the book were much longer. Which is how come an essay of somewhere around 5,000 words will be coming to a Vector near you in the not too distant future.

Rosemary Hill – Time’s Witness: Another dense book, if not quite so long as The Enlightenment. This is a study of antiquarianism in Britain and France between, roughly, the French Revolution and the Great Exhibition. It is fascinating for the way it reveals how our views of the past have changed over the years.

Michael Walker – Laurel Canyon: Between the late-1960s and the mid-1970s, Laurel Canyon, just outside Los Angeles, became home to a startling variety of rock stars, including Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, and a host of others, some more temporary than others. Given that the canyon is not too far from the Troubadour, the whole area became a crossroads for rock musicians of every kind. This is an occasionally breathless, often starry-eyed account of the whole phenomenon, and its rather sad ending, but the whole book is great fun.

Helen MacInnes – Neither Five Nor Three: If you had asked me, I would have sworn that this was the MacInnes novel I had read on a trip to Greece in the early 70s, and that a Greek Orthodox priest I met on a train to Mycenae used to practice his (atrocious) English pronunciation. Yet when I read the book now I didn’t remember a single thing about the story. Was my memory at fault?

Octavia Cade – The Impossible Resurrection of Grief: a novella that I reviewed for Strange Horizons and which I can’t help feeling should have been longer.

David Edmonds and John Eidinow – Wittgenstein’s Poker: Effectively the precursor to Edmonds’s The Murder of Professor Schlick, though there is considerable overlap between the two works. This begins with the only meeting between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (the two philosophers who were central to my own philosophy studies), at which the two disagreed so violently that Wittgenstein allegedly threatened Popper with a poker.

Georges Simenon – Liberty Bar

Robert Holdstock – Mythago Wood: How many times have I read this now? This time I was making notes for the book about Mythago Wood that I need to begin writing in the next few days. There is always more to discover in the book, it really is fantastic.

Georges Simenon – Lock No.1: This is the novel in which Maigret announces that he is about to retire. Every Maigret novel to this point (this is number 18) was written in a very brief period, 1932 and 1933. The next novel, just called Maigret, came out in 1934 and features Maigret in retirement, but then there is a gap in the chronology. So I’m guessing that this was the point at which Simenon decided that his creation had to encounter his own Reichenbach Falls, only, like Doyle before him, Simenon discovered that he couldn’t quite pull the trigger.

Louis Menand – The Free World: This is easily the biggest of the big books I read this year, over 700 pages of rather dense text. It is subtitled “Art and Thought in the Cold War”, though it brings the story to a close with the Vietnam War, twenty years before the Cold War itself ended. It is an excellent if at times frustrating book. For well over half the book each new chapter takes a different focus, and usually presents it in relation to one figure: George Kennan, George Orwell, Jean Paul Sartre, Claude Levi Strauss, Merce Cunningham, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, the Beatles and so on. (Much of this is covered in the piece I wrote here, at around the half way mark in the book.) But then, suddenly, he starts linking these characters, so that the picture he is presenting in such careful detail starts to become ever more complex. And after complaining that all of his central figures are men we suddenly come upon a chapter which explains why, which points out how women were systematically obscured during this period, how the number of women in universities, the professions, branches of government and so forth was actually less in the 1960s than it had been in the 1920s. It is a huge and powerful book, there’s a lot to take in and nobody is going to agree with everything in the book, but as a springboard for ideas it is unrivalled.

Michael O’Neill – Joni Mitchell: Lady of the Canyon: The book is worth it for the photographs, but the text? It is basically a loose, flaccid essay that tries to encompass the whole of her life and career in no great depth. O’Neill is best in his thumbnail reviews of the various albums, but there is no detail and no insight here. And it is very careless, at one point he talks of a concert “the day after her prison episode” (69) without actually saying anywhere what this “prison episode” might be. Everything is brushed over quickly, lightly, the many quotations are never sourced. It is just sloppy work. (For comparison, this essay says more, more interestingly, about Joni Mitchell, and isn’t that much shorter than O’Neill’s book.)

Rob Young – The Magic Box: I loved Young’s book on folk music, Electric Eden, so I was anxious to see what he made of this book on British film and television. I wasn’t disappointed. It is clearly intended as a companion volume to Electric Eden, because the cross-references are immense. But I hadn’t taken into account how much of the book would be about folk horror with constant reference to the way themes like alien invasion, horrors rising from the ground, and secret societies all reflect social and cultural conditions within Britain at the time. I kept stumbling across ideas that made me go: oh, yes, I need to remember this when I’m writing about X or Y or … This is, I think, a book I will come back to on many occasions.

And that’s it, a very poor 36 titles in all (though there are half a dozen title in there that are particularly long, and the Menand probably counts as three normal books). I don’t think any of the books I have on the go at the moment will be finished before the end of the day, so I might as well close this list now and post it.

Other news: I’ve now read the final proofs and written the index for the book on Brian Aldiss, and that is on schedule to appear in July. Before that, in May, I am due to deliver the manuscript for a book about Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I’m going to be starting to write that in the next week. I have a proposal for another book, which I need to revise and submit also during January. Meantime the next issue of Foundation will have getting on for 8,000 words on Margaret Cavendish from me, and then there is the long review essay on Futures of the Past that is die to appear in Vector sometime during the year. So on a writing front, things have kept going at a steady pace, and I just hope it continues like that over the next year.

Brexit, avant la lettre


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This morning I came across the following passage. It was written by Cyril Connolly and published in Horizon in 1947. And it seems to me that, apart from some specifics of time and place, this could very easily apply to Brexit Britain.

For context: 1947 was one of the harshest winters in recent British history. It was the worst since the 1890s, and there has been nothing like it since. Snow blanketted the country for months, in many place food and fuel could not get through. Since food and clothing were still rationed (food rationing would continue well into the 1950s), it was a hard time for everyone. Winning the war had brought no tangible benefit. The country was in so much debt that every cent of Marshall Aid it received went to pay those debts, so there was none of the investment in repairing infrastructure and buying new technology that happened in the rest of Europe. (I remember there were still bomb sites around my home in the suburbs of Manchester throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies.) This was one of the reasons why, industrially and economically, Britain lagged behind other European countries right up until the time we joined the Common Market in the 1970s. The other main reasons, of course, being antiquated management practices, appalling labour relations, and the policies of successive governments during the “thirteen years of Tory misrule” between Churchill shutting down the Festival of Britain and Wilson extolling the “white heat” of technology.

So we were poor, hungry, freezing and probably wondering what was the point of winning the war. And Connolly, a misanthrope who complained about everything, wrote:

The advantages which position, coal, skill and enterprise won for us in the nineteenth century have been liquidated and we go back to scratch as a barren, humid, raw, but densely over-populated group of islands with an obsolete industrial plant, hideous but inadequate housing, a variety of unhealthy jungle possessions [though, of course, empire has gone now and the various former colonies rightly care little for us], vast international commitments, a falling birth-rate [it was actually rising at the time, but is falling now] and a large class of infertile rentiers or over-specialized middlemen and brokers as our main capital … Most of us are not men or women but members of a vast, seedy, over-worked, over-legislated, neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, stricken, old-world apathies and resentments – a careworn people.

Especially the poems


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I recommend, wholeheartedly, Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I am reading it very slowly because, (a), it is massive, and (b), it is so stuffed with facts and information that I need time to take it all in. Nevertheless, every day when I pick it up, it is with immense pleasure, and with the certainty that I will add to my knowledge.

Even so, there are a couple of points worth making. Not necessarily negative points, but things that might bear on your understanding and appreciation of the book.

For a start, the subtitle is misleading. Cold War is used here almost exclusively as a chronological identifier. The book covers the years from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, so roughly the first half of the period known as the Cold War. It deals with art and ideas that emerged during those years, but it does not deal with the way those arts and ideas engaged with the Cold War, or were shaped by the Cold War. Anyone recalling Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stoner Saunders, for example, which looked at how the CIA used the arts as a weapon in their secret war against the Soviet Union, will find little if anything on that subject here (Encounter does not appear in the index). The Korean War is barely mentioned, though the Vietnam War which sparked a huge artistic response at the end of the 1960s does fare somewhat better (it would have been unforgiveable if it had not). But in general this is about what art was going on at the time of the early Cold War, but not how or why it was occurring in those circumstances. Over the first 300-or-so pages of the book the Second World War plays a far more influential part in shaping the subject of the book than the Cold War does.

The second point is that the book is largely focussed on American art. This is not unexpected (post-war American art is a massive enough subject for anyone) and he does nod towards what was going on in the rest of the world. There are chapters on Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, but these are almost lost amid the flurry of chapters on George Kennan, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Allen Ginsburg, and so on. The non-Americans who figure most prominently in this study are those who came to America as refugees during the war, or whose greatest success was achieved in or cemented in America. Those intellectual and artistic areas that were not so prominent in America get less attention. For instance philosophy in the post-war world remained a largely European endeavour, and the leading American exponents (Willard van Orman Quine) largely worked in a European model. So, despite the fact that Menand’s previous best book was on the American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey), here he makes no mention of the topic other than the chapter on Sartre.

Which brings me to what prompted these thoughts: pop music. This is a response to youth culture, and he makes the telling point that for such a culture to flourish there had to be space for it. Teenagers were effectively created when official efforts were made to encourage people to stay in school longer. This created a space between elementary education and work, and the United States was far more successful at creating that space. He’s got the statistics to back this up: in 1955, 84% of Americans between 14 and 17 were in school; in 1957, just 9% of British seventeen-year-olds were still in school. Youth culture started in America, created its first stars in America: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and so on. Then he asks a very telling question: in that case, why were the most popular entertainers in the world in the 1960s British?

I had an instant answer to that question, and Menand did not. But then, I’m not aware of any Americans who would have come up with the same answer. The obvious answer, to me, was class.

(As an aside, many years ago I was on a convention panel with Kim Stanley Robinson and some others, I was the only Brit. During the panel, Stan and I got into a discussion on class, and I realised very quickly that we were talking an entirely different language. For Stan, and for every other American on the panel, class was inextricably related to, and indeed defined by, wealth. The more money you have, the higher your class; the less money you have, the lower your class. And that is just not the way it works in Britain; here class is a far more complex thing. For several years, the Beatles were the highest paid entertainers in the world, but that did not make them upper class. Indeed, being working class was emphatically a part of their self-image, their creativity (I suspect neither “Strawberry Fields Forever” nor “She’s Leaving Home” could have been written out of anything other than working class sensibility), and their reception.)

We are twenty-odd pages into Menand’s discussion of the Beatles before he uses the word class, and this is only to note that Ringo’s drollness — Q: What do you think of Beethoven? Ringo: Great. Especially his poems. — can be traced to his working-class Liverpool upbringing. (As Menand says, cuttingly but accurately, “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”) Which actually rather misses the point. By this stage, Menand has already made great play of the fact that John Lennon, like Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and a host of others had gone to art college, as if the British pop scene emerged as a result of this rather arty, middle-class milieu. But the British art school of the 1950s and 1960s had virtually no academic requirements for entry, so it became a haven for those who were too creative or rebellious to want to go into the jobs market, but were “not academically gifted”, which at the time was often a euphemism for “working class”. Every single one of these art school pop stars saw music as an interval before they had to get a proper job. The music emerged not from the art school, but from the dread of following their fathers into another dead-end job. The space that Menand talks about, the space in which youth culture flourished, had given people a desire for something better, but the British class system permitted no route to achieve that desire. So the reason why British pop music dominated the world in the 1960s, why the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Who and the Hollies and the Move and the Yardbirds and the Animals and all the rest emerged there and then, was because of class.

That Menand gets this wrong is not a criticism of the book. Rather it is a sign that what is going on here is far larger, far more complex, than even this huge book can accommodate. And there is much else of great value here.


I am not intending to add more to this post with each new chapter I encounter, but this is worth saying if only because it contradicts something I wrongly implied above.

The very next chapter takes us into the heady realms of philosophy, and directly addresses the connection between the Cold War and the development of ideas. The focus of this chapter is Isaiah Berlin (not generally a philosopher who is highly thought of these days). There is a passing reference to logical positivism (though not, so far at least, logical atomism or any of the subsequent linguistic philosophy, despite J.L. Austin being namechecked), but the main focus is on Berlin’s critique of Marxism, which, as presented here, seems to tie in remarkably closely to the critique of Soviet policy as propounded by Berlin’s friend, George Kennan (see Chapter One). I suspect that the central point of this chapter will revolve around Berlin’s famous distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, though Menand has not so far included that formulation. He has actually spent rather more time talking about Berlin’s time in America during the war, and his encounter with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Which raises another point: each chapter has one or two central figures around which the story is woven. These central figures, at least so far, are all men. Women appear as followers, wives, or muses. Of course he might confound me by next including a chapter on science that revolves around Rosalind Franklin … but no, I don’t think so.

If this chapter runs true to form I expect to see Karl Popper making an appearance, but if so it will be for The Open Society and its Enemies rather than for The Logic of Scientific Discovery and falsifiability. We might even see Bertrand Russell, but I can’t imagine how Ludwig Wittgenstein might fit into this account.

Out of the inferno: Kepler


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Way back in the late-1970s (coincidentally, about the time I was myself starting, hesitantly and awkwardly, to write book reviews) Phil Stephenson-Payne persuaded the BSFA to run his personal review zine as a sort of adjunct to the BSFA’s own critical magazine, Vector. Even though it was published under the auspices of the BSFA, Stephenson-Payne still seemed to regard the tweely-named Paperback Parlour as his own personal fanzine. One copy reached me with a scrawled note asking to exchange it for a copy of my own fanzine at the time.

Around the end of the decade, the BSFA seem to have decided to take the fanzine entirely in-house. Paperback Parlour acquired a new editor, Joseph Nicholas, and a new, more aggressive, title, Paperback Inferno (this was, remember, the heyday of the so-called KTF – Kill The Fuckers – school of fanzine reviewing). In that form, Paperback Inferno, first under Nicholas and later under Andy Sawyer, lasted well into the 1990s before it was reabsorbed into Vector.

The other day, sorting through some old boxes, I came across my stash of old Paperback Infernos. It was a curious and not always comfortable experience to leaf through them. There were a number of my reviews in there, of course, but fewer than I remember. And there are books I reviewed, and even authors, of whom I have no memory whatsoever – Joan Cox? Russell M. Griffin? – and even reviews of books I would have sworn, if asked, that I had never read.

At various times during the sporadic lifetime of this blog I have used it to republish old reviews of mine, specifically those that otherwise had no online existence. So the obvious question to ask myself when I rediscovered these ancient reviews was whether I should republish them here. And in the vast majority of cases the equally obvious answer was: no. Paperback Inferno was never a venue for the long and thoughtful consideration, most of the reviews were around 200-300 words, and to be honest have no lasting interest, even to me. But one or two longer pieces did appear, including the one I’ve republished below.

Please note, I make no great claims for this review as a review. There are places where I winced at how poorly written it is, the prose is often clumsy and the critical analysis I would do very differently were I to approach the same book today. And yet, from a personal historical point of view, it is interesting, to me at least.

It appeared in the August 1983 issue of Paperback Inferno, that is just over five years after my very first review was published in the January 1978 issue of Vector. In those five years, practically everything I wrote was around the 400-500 word mark, often less. But this review is over 1,100 words, twice the length of anything I had written to that point. Was I making a point, proving to myself that I could write at greater length? I don’t know. I have no memory of writing this review, and if asked I would have said it was some years after this that I started writing longer reviews. There are two clues I can draw from this review. The first is that I bought the book in hardback when it first appeared in 1976, and read it straight away. It was the book that introduced me to the work of John Banville, and I have been a devoted fan of his work ever since. I don’t know if there was a (belated) paperback edition in 1983, but the re-read I mention in the first sentence of the review would have been of the hardback. The second clue is that I make a repeated point of saying that the novel is not science fiction (looking back now I recall that at around this time, the late-70s and early-80s, there was a lot of mainstream historical fiction that dealt with scientific subjects, fiction about science if not science fiction, but curiously I make no mention of this in the review). It is, therefore, a very early iteration of my continued interest in the borderlands rather than the heartlands of science fiction. It is strange and oddly satisfying to see this theme, this interest, crop up so early in what I laughingly call my career. But that means it is not a review that is likely to have been commissioned; it is, therefore, something I wrote on spec, out of my enthusiasm for the book. Which may be why I felt called upon, and able, to go on at such length.

The book (have I not mentioned it up to now?) is Kepler by John Banville, one of my favourite novels by one of my favourite novelists. This review does not do it justice, just as it doesn’t really do me justice, but it is interesting to see how early the seeds were planted.

A mischievous thought occurred to me as I was rereading Kepler: is it science fiction? It is, after all, fiction about science.  Indeed, so central is the science that without it there would be to fiction. Yet I cannot see SF fans welcoming it to the hallowed ground of the ghetto. However, no one should miss this book simply because it doesn’t fit into some favoured pigeonhole.

Kepler is a book that defies categorisation. It is not, of course, science fiction.  In SF, the “science” element provides the setting for the fiction; in Kepler, the science forms part of the plot, and even the characterisation. But nor does it conform to the usual pattern of an historical novel. It is, I suppose, a form of fictionalised biography, but though it gives a remarkably vivid portrait of Kepler, no one should turn to it expecting to find the facts of his life on neat and unambiguous display.

In fact, the overall success of the book is made up of a host of successes in many different areas. To attempt to pigeonhole it in any way would be impossible. One of the reasons I take such delight in it is that it crosses all borders with such insouciant ease and to such devastating effect. Banville, in other words, has written a fine novel about science; an atmospheric novel about a particularly dramatic period in history; a sharply perceptive novel of character – and they are all together in this one book.

At its heart, of course, is Johannes Kepler. It may seem an easy thing to take a real person and put him in a novel, but many good writers have come a cropper doing just that. The known facts about a person’s life and career, the imposed chronology of recorded events, can rob the author of the creative impetus necessary to bring the character to life. It is a measure of Banville’s achievement, therefore, that he has not only managed to breathe life into his Kepler but also made him one of the most vivid characters I have encountered in any novel.

Truth to tell, I don’t think I would have liked to have known Banville’s Kepler: he is sickly, obsessive, self-centred, tactless, weak, obstinate, proud, brilliant; yet he commands our attention and sympathy throughout the book. He feels that anyone who does not support him has betrayed him, yet we are made to feel, too, that he deserved much more support than he got. He has an inflated sense of his own worth, boasting that he will solve the problem of the orbit of Mars in just seven days; yet when, seven years later, he does solve this tricky problem he not only reveals his true genius but also revolutionises our world-view. He is a mass of contradictions, but we are shown how the many facets of his character relate to each other and add up to one all too human man.

Banville has a special ability to create character and is unstinting with it. Many of the secondary characters are nearly as vivid as Kepler himself:  Barbara, his wife, who nags him and has no real comprehension of his work; his infuriating mother, who dabbles in witchcraft; and above all the gross, Falstaffian figure of Tycho Brahe. Nevertheless, it is Kepler himself who holds the book together, and it is through him that Banville manages what I consider to be the most remarkable achievement of the book: he makes clear the nature of Kepler’s discoveries and the scale of his achievement, he fits the discoveries into the pattern of contemporary belief, and he conveys the excitement of the discoveries.

Science rarely fares well in the hands of novelists.  Theory, and the patient sifting of minutiae that form such an important part of scientific method, do not make for great drama, and on the few occasions when they do appear in fiction they tend to be passed over quickly or else are just plain dull. That is not the case here.  My knowledge of and interest in science is virtually non-existent, yet throughout the book I had no difficulty in understanding the development of Kepler’s ideas and found myself as excited as he at each new discovery.

Banville is able to do this because by showing each step in the process in the context of contemporary belief he is able to set up a conflict.  Right from the start, we are shown that the impulse driving Kepler to study the stars is a search for order and harmony in a world and a life that are far from orderly and harmonious. In this, Banville recreates with masterly brevity a very convincing picture of daily life in Europe at the time of the Thirty Years War. Kepler’s quest for harmony leads him to posit the idea that the intervals between the planets correspond to the sequence of regular shapes – triangle, square, pentagon, and so on. The neatness and elegance of this theory so entrances Kepler that his later and major discovery that the planets follow elliptical rather than circular paths conflicts dramatically with his earlier and favoured belief.

The whole is presented in a rich and pleasing prose that is absolutely littered with fresh and delightful metaphors. There is a studied disregard for chronology, sending the story off on flashback after flashback, and flashbacks within flashbacks, which enable the sense of the character to be conveyed far better than any mere record of events. There are even audacious little stylistic tricks that work surprisingly well, far better than they have any right to. Around the middle of the novel, Banville suddenly presents us with a series of letters from Kepler to a variety of correspondents covering some seven years. Then he balances this with a second series of letters, in reverse chronological order, from Kepler to those same correspondents. In each case it is obvious that. Kepler has received a letter in the interim, and the pairs of letters neatly present different sides of his character, by turns braggadocio and injured pride, confidence and uncertainty, anger and hurt.  It is a remarkably effective device.

One other aspect of this diverse and hugely enjoyable novel should not be overlooked: its humour.  There is a constant thread of comedy running through the book, in the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and in the occasional joke that Banville slips in. I particularly enjoyed the way, towards the end, he suddenly and very briefly introduces two Scandinavian relatives of Tycho Brahe, “Holger Rosenkrands the statesman’s son and the Norwegian Axel Gyldenstjern”, who invite Kepler to join them on their mission to England.  Perhaps wisely, he declines.

Kepler is a novel that cannot be accurately or conveniently summed up in one slick phrase. But it is a novel that sets out to be many things and succeeds in just about all of them. I hold little hope for anyone who. cannot find something to enjoy in it.

Whereof one cannot speak


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For the few brief, interminable weeks between the last of our A-Level exams and the end of the school year, we were still required to go into school every day. There was nothing for us to do, no lessons, no activities, but we were there. We spent our lunchtimes at the local pub, where the teachers discretely ignored us except to maybe tap a watch when it was time to get back to school. Other than that, I spent most of my time in the school library, reading. That was when I first read The Lord of the Rings. More importantly, because our history teacher had once told us Plato’s allegory of the cave, that was when I decided to read Plato. I read several of the Penguin Classics at that time, starting with the collection of short dialogues gathered as The Last Days of Socrates. It changed my life.

I had already been applying to universities to study history, but when I got to the New University of Ulster I found that I was able to take one or two modules in a different subject. So, with Plato still fresh in my mind, I took Introductory Philosophy. This turned out to be a brisk canter through epistemology from Descartes, via Locke and Russell, to Wittgenstein and analytical philosophy. Even before the end of the module I’d applied to change my major to philosophy. Not possible, I’d already done too much history, but I could do a joint degree in philosophy and history.

This was the early 70s, the emphasis, certainly at NUU and at Warwick where I did a postgrad year, was heavily on Anglo-Saxon philosophy, notably empiricism and particularly linguistic philosophy from the later Wittgenstein. I did some courses on ethics, which I found interesting but oddly unsatisfying, and formal logic which I enjoyed but having never been a mathematician the closer the two disciplines converged the more I was out of my depth. But my real interest, and the dominant line of thought at both universities, was around the old questions: what is real, what is true, how do we know there’s a world out there, what do we mean by …

Not my copy, but in pretty much exactly the same condition.

All of this was enduringly fascinating, and almost entirely anglophone: I read Ayer and Russell and Austen and Peirce and Quine and Kuhn and Popper, with brief asides to Frege and Carnap, but most of all I read Wittgenstein. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus blew me away, and then I discovered Philosophical Investigations which came to dominate my thinking in ways I never anticipated. What was then rather airily dismissed as “Continental Philosophy” practically never crossed my horizon. Kant’s Prolegomena came into one of my ethics classes, and I did a course on the Critique of Pure Reason (the margins in my copy of the book are filled with tiny pencil scribbles pointing out how wrong Kant was), but other than that, nothing. Once or twice, in the university library or bookstore, I would glance at one or other of the great tomes of continental philosophy, Being and Time or Being and Nothingness, but invariably gave up within a page or two. I did not then, and do not now, have a great deal of patience for metaphysics, and those books struck me as unreadable nonsense.

The one bit of continental philosophy we were aware of was the Vienna Circle, though we knew of them en masse rather than individually. It was years later before I discovered, for example, that Carnap was a member of the Circle, and that Gödel was associated with them. What the Vienna Circle actually thought we encountered almost entirely through A.J. Ayer, not the most reliable of sources. And though they regarded their own work as logical empiricism (which would have made their work a pretty good fit for my own interests), they were termed, largely thanks to Ayer, I suspect, logical positivists. Let’s face it, simple positivism is a fairly easy position to undermine, particularly when you’ve encountered Popper’s falsifiability.

My tutor at Warwick was Susan Haack, even then a very big name in logic, and at one point I produced an essay for her which she regarded as so good she was going to footnote it in her next book. (Did she do so? I’ve no idea, I never saw that book.) Unfortunately the external examiner wasn’t of like mind (for reasons I’ve long suspected might be partly political) so I missed out on the MA by a whisker, and at that point left philosophy behind me. Or I thought I did, at least I stopped keeping up with the subject. But at this time I was already into science fiction, and I wrote what would have been my first piece for a fanzine about Samuel R. Delany’s Triton. It wasn’t used, but in the next issue of the fanzine the editor included a note which rather dismissively said that he’d received a review of Triton which said it was all about philosophy. I don’t think that’s actually what I said, but the piece has long since vanished so I can’t be sure. But the editor’s response made me think, for the first time, that philosophy and reviewing weren’t actually all that far apart. So when I did seriously start writing reviews a year or so later, I found my years of study had a use after all.

If I thought I had left philosophy behind, it would also be true to say that philosophy hadn’t actually left me behind. I kept encountering bits of philosophy all over the place, often in reviews or essays in the TLS or LRB, and I also kept recognising echoes of the philosophy I had learned peeping out of the things I wrote. But I wasn’t actually reading philosophy.

Except that a few years ago I came across a book called The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Nowadays, we’d probably call it a group biography, but at the time it was presented as a cultural history; I’m not sure there is any difference between the terms. Menand told the interconnected stories of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, in effect, though it is not spelled out as such, telling the story of American pragmatic philosophy. It is a wonderful, fascinating book and to an extent reawakened my interest in pragmatism; though to be honest I’d never been that convinced by the pragmatics, and was more interested in the book as a history of ideas.

Other group biographies began to turn up, usually presenting the history of ideas as the story of the people who were central to the development and propagation of those ideas. The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow about the congeries of scientists and industrialists in the late-18th century Midlands is one of the best of the type; Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries about the Frankfurt School is one of the densest and, in the end I think, least satisfying. It was after reading Grand Hotel Abyss that I said there really ought to be a group biography of the Vienna Circle. No sooner said than done: I spent part of my holiday reading exactly that book, The Murder of Professor Schlick by David Edmonds. And, as is the way of these things, you wait for one book and two come along at the same time, because also on holiday I read Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929 by Wolfram Eilenberger. Time of the Magicians isn’t about the Vienna Circle, though its members do appear, but it tells the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin, which means that it overlaps with both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Grand Hotel Abyss.

I want to say here and now, in case it doesn’t become crystal clear later on, that these two books are already set fair to be my top two books of the year.

Let’s get the murder out of the way first. In June 1936, Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was shot and killed by a deranged former student. The right wing press in Austria defended the student on the grounds that Schlick, though not Jewish himself, had been promulgating Jewish ideas. And when, a couple of years later, Germany annexed Austria, the student walked free. Meanwhile, the other philosophers who had belonged to the Vienna Circle, that Schlick had headed since the end of the First World War, all had to find ways of fleeing the country. They ended up scattered in Britain, across America, and in Australia, so the cohesive unity that had been the Vienna Circle was broken. That is the fervid political atmosphere against which the story of the Vienna Circle is played out.

But the intellectual atmosphere of the time was no less fervid. The Circle had formed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, largely at the instigation of Otto Neurath, and they met every week for the next decade and a half, to discuss philosophical issues of the day and also to try to ensure that the madness of war that had killed many thousands and torn their country apart would not recur. In philosophical terms, they saw the enemy as metaphysics, and they wanted to advocate a rational, scientific, empirical approach that would institute a rational, scientific, empirical society in which war would be unthinkable. There was, in short, a very political issue underlying their abstract philosophical musings. Particularly as the empiricism they advocated was associated with Jews (Einstein for one), while the dominant philosophical approach in Germany, from Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger, concentrated on phenomenology and metaphysics. I don’t think, until Schlick was murdered, that the Vienna Circle had any appreciation of the political overtones of their thinking (well, Neurath did, but I’m not sure about the others), but they were increasingly at odds with the intellectual climate of their time and place.

Then, in 1922, Wittgenstein published the Tractatus, and set the Vienna Circle ablaze. Here was the book that said everything they believed in. Or at least, so they thought. Nobody at university told me that the Vienna Circle was inspired by Wittgenstein; it would have spoiled the dominant narrative, that they were on the wrong side of philosophical history, and Wittgenstein was the one who done them in. Actually, the interpretation of the Tractatus that I was taught was pretty damn close to the Vienna Circle’s interpretation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Wittgenstein’s own interpretation. They (and we) saw Wittgenstein as an anti-metaphysician: metaphysics cannot be expressed in the language of logic, so it is not worth saying. But Wittgenstein saw himself as paving the way for metaphysics: it is worth saying precisely because it cannot be expressed in the language of logic. (I derive this interpretation from both The Murder of Professor Schlick and Time of the Magicians, so I assume this is now the standard reading of the Tractatus, but that wasn’t what I was taught, so it came as something of a shock to discover this position being clearly laid out in both these books.)

I wish I had had one or both of these books when I was studying philosophy. It is not just that complex arguments are laid out clearly and effectively (I even feel like I’m starting to grasp something of what Heidegger was on about), it is that the cultural context makes sense of the way a lot of these arguments developed. For example, I realise that much of what I was taught, many of the approaches to problems that I adopted as my own, were lifted straight from the Vienna Circle, including many of the same mistakes needless to say. And yet the overall tone of what I was taught was that the Vienna Circle was wrong. And where we were taught stuff that came straight from the Circle – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, for instance, which became one of the touchstones I returned to again and again – there was no reference to the fact that this came from the Circle.

At least I knew about the Vienna Circle. Because I did no Continental Philosophy, I knew nothing of the other great development in philosophy that was going on at exactly the same time as the Vienna Circle was meeting. This other strand came to a head at Davos in 1929. Davos was famous for hosting philosophical conferences, before it became famous for hosting economic conferences, and the highlight of the 1929 conference was a debate between Cassirer and Heidegger in which Heidegger, at least by his own reckoning, trounced Cassirer. Now Cassirer is probably not one of the names to conjure with in the history of philosophy, he was rather a bland, middle class suburbanite really. He did some interesting work, particularly in the area of myth, but he was never the sort to set the world on fire. But earlier in 1929 he had made an impassioned speech in defence of democracy. Heidegger, on the other hand, was everything Cassirer was not: a fire raiser, magnetic, idiosyncratic, and decidedly not a democrat. He was also not a particularly nice man, happy to betray his own mentors in order to secure his own advancement, and he joined the Nazi Party not out of necessity to preserve his own position, but out of conviction. This, and the fact that he had been briefly Hannah Arendt’s lover, was all I really knew of Heidegger before I read Time of the Magicians; well, that and the fact that he wrote some of the most turgid and impenetrable prose known to humankind. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, therefore, became in retrospect a battle for the soul of German philosophy, one in which the metaphysics of Nazism emerged victorious.

In the decade covered by Eilenberger’s book, both Cassirer and Heidegger were part of the German academic establishment, professors at universities. Neither Wittgenstein nor Benjamin was a full-time academic (not for want of trying on Benjamin’s part). Neither was at Davos, neither took any part in these soul-stirring debates, but both were refining their thinking in ways that would shape the intellectual world that was emerging. Wittgenstein didn’t even have a PhD at this point. He had studied under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge before the First World War (Edmonds implies that ever after Russell had a sort of philosophical inferiority complex because of Wittgenstein, which is believable and not believable at the same time). When the war began, Wittgenstein had returned home to fight in the Austrian army, and began to write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while a prisoner of war. Because he believed that the Tractatus was the absolute last word in philosophy (if nothing else, he was an arrogant sod; no wonder when he returned to Cambridge in 1929 that John Maynard Keynes wrote: “Well, God has arrived”) he saw no point in continuing to do philosophy and got a job as a teacher in a small rural school. He wasn’t very good at it, and ended up moving from school to school several times over the next few years. Then he worked briefly as an architect to help design a new house for his sister (he was a multimillionaire who had given away all his money, but the family still tended to look after him). Meanwhile, his book had been published to a weird mixture of acclaim and bemusement. He was persuaded to meet several members of the Vienna Circle and was frustrated by the fact that, by his lights, they were dramatically misinterpreting what he wrote. But this prompted him to start rethinking his ideas (the Blue and Brown Books would start to be written around this time, preparing the way for the Philosophical Investigations that would be published posthumously), and at the end of the decade he allowed himself to be tempted back to Cambridge. Here Russell and his fellows connived to give Wittgenstein a PhD, so he could be awarded a grant and a permanent position; the thesis was the Tractatus, the oral exam was conducted by Russell and G.E. Moore, and it ended with Wittgenstein telling them, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”

Meanwhile, Benjamin was scrabbling a living writing reviews, begging for loans, chasing all sorts of academic positions and then screwing up every opportunity he was given. Though as the decade ended the Frankfurt School was getting started, and Benjamin would at last find a sort of intellectual home if not an actual home. One of the fascinating things about Eilenberger’s book is the structure: he takes us roughly year-by-year through the 1920s, and in each chapter deals in turn with his four principals. But this allows him to do a lot of comparing and contrasting with often surprising results. He traces out a mass of complex interconnections between the ideas of the four philosophers, the similarity in their approach to metaphysics taken by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the way Benjamin’s thinking intersects with Wittgenstein’s, and so on. For what is essentially a popular book, there is a lot of complex work going on so that ideas keep arising and shifting and showing themselves in unexpected lights. Between the two of them, these books lay out a vivid map of philosophical thought between the two world wars, a time when philosophy was at its most austere and challenging, and yet they keep everything crystal clear. These are two books that will, I suspect, shape my own thinking for some time to come.

And now, surely, it is time for a book about the Cambridge School of Philosophy …




So, what do you expect when you read a non-fiction book? Specifically, since that’s what I’ll be talking about here, a history book?

Maybe different people have different expectations, but for me I’m looking for narrative and information, of course, there’s not much point in reading history if you don’t discover a story you didn’t know before, or at least one whose details you didn’t know. I want to learn, but that also means that I am looking for the author to be, as it were, a teacher. I want to feel they are on top of their subject, that they have formulated a coherent account that makes sense of the information they are conveying.

All of which, alas, is what is singularly missing from MI9 by Helen Fry.

I knew there were going to be problems with the book: I’d read the reviews. But the problem the reviewer, and a host of letter-writers, in the TLS was exercised with is not the problem I have with the book. Let’s deal with that problem first: none of the correspondents in the TLS was happy with the fact that Helen Fry blames Claude Dansey, Deputy Chief of MI6 and as such one of the people with overall control of MI9, for betraying one of the main escape lines in France. Except that you could read practically the whole of the book and wonder what all the fuss was about. Yes, the early parts of the book suggest that Dansey isn’t exactly the hero of this story, but there is nothing to tell us why Fry clearly doesn’t like him. We are told that a man called Harold Cole sold out one of the escape lines for personal gain. But it is not until we are two pages into the Epilogue that we get to this brief passage:

When Langley [one of the heads of MI9] raised concerns over Cole, MI9 arguably could have done more to terminate him. Dansey, however, failed to take action and it has been suggested that he was running Cole as a double agent. [283]

And that’s it. Several weeks of letters to the TLS all over these two sentences, hedged around with qualifications: “arguably”, “suggested”. Now, this isn’t exactly good history: what more could MI9 have done? What did they actually do? Who suggested that Dansey was involved? Is there anything to support this suggestion? Fry doesn’t say, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the answers. I know several people were killed as a result of Cole’s betrayal, others were tortured and sent to concentration camps. Even so, this passage is barely an excuse for so many people to get hot under the collar, particularly when there is so much else wrong with the book.

Let’s put it simply: this book is badly constructed, badly written, and at the very least the copy editors at Yale University Press deserve to be taken out and shot. This is shoddy work. I wasn’t expecting great art, but when you are telling a story as complex as the history of the organisation that helped escaped prisoners of war and downed airmen across Europe throughout the Second World War, you expect the whole thing to be at least coherent.

There are other books on the subject, the earliest being Airey Neave’s Saturday at MI9 which came out in 1969. But it has been a while since the most recent of these appeared, and Fry apparently had access to newly released documents, so this should be the go-to book on the topic. Should be. And there is indeed an awful lot of information contained in the book, but it is presented in such a haphazard manner that it would be a nightmare trying to amass it all, and even then doubts would remain about whether you had got it all straight and in the right chronological order.

Let’s take a fairly simple matter. At the beginning of the book there is a rather too brief account of the gadgets that were designed and produced by the boffins at MI9 to aid escapers. These varied from tissue-thin maps hidden in board games to boots for airmen that could be quickly and easily cut down to resemble civilian shoes. There was a lot of ingenuity involved in this which Fry doesn’t give as much attention as I think it deserves (but that is a minor quibble), and these items were smuggled into PoW camps in deliveries from non-existent charities. This, we are led to believe, was all vital stuff for escapers. But much later in the book, when we are inside a Prisoner of War camp (in this instance, Colditz) we learn that the Germans quickly got wind of what was going on and quickly instituted procedures that managed to find most of the gadgets before they reached the prisoners. Later still, she changes the story yet again by insisting once more that most of the gadgets did get through and were instrumental in many escapes. Except that we are given details of very few actual escapes, and those that we are told about (Airey Neave’s escape from Colditz; the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III) seem to have taken place without the use of any MI9 gadgets. By the mid-point of the book, in other words, you are thoroughly confused about this part of the MI9 story, and there is nothing later in the book to clarify things.

And that is a really minor part of the mess that is this book. For instance, she will devote a great deal of attention to one of the escape routes across Belgium and France, the Comet Line, for example, or the Pat Line. Then she will just break off in mid story to tell us about something else that has no direct link to the Comet Line, and probably doesn’t even fit into the same chronology (chronology is so screwed up in this book that I couldn’t say for sure on that point). Then, when she resumes the story of the escape line, her account will just peter out, and it will only be several chapters later that you learn, in passing, that the line was betrayed, or the leader of the route was captured, or something else happened.

Then there is confusion about who Fry is actually writing about. For instance, writing about the Shelburne Line, which evacuated shot down airmen from Brittany to Dartmouth, she tells us: “A leader emerged in the person of a White Russian called Vladimir Bouryschkine” [162]. The next thing we learn, however, is that “Back in England, Langley asked Val Williams if he was prepared to return to France” [163] to run the escape route. It is only when you check the index that you discover that “Val Williams” was the code name used by Vladimir Bouryschkine.

I could go on, but it is dispiriting to do so. All the way through the book you learn of people being betrayed and arrested before you find out what they actually did. You encounter people being called indiscriminately by their real name or their code name, sometimes without being clear which is which. There is a constant sense of stories only half told: for instance we know of the traitor Harold Cole, but we don’t know exactly what happened, why he did what he did, or what the consequences were.

And there is so much missing. Read accounts of similar wartime endeavours, the code breakers at Bletchley Park, for instance, or the people running the double cross system, and you will be given details of how it was structured and how it did its job day by day. There is none of that here. As I finish the book I feel I know less about how MI9 operated than I did before I started it. And then there is the other great absence: the actual experience of being an escaper. We know that everyone who escaped, or who evaded capture and was helped by MI9, was interrogated once they reached safety. There are detailed reports of the experiences of every one of the several thousand people who were helped to escape by MI9. Fry refers to these reports frequently throughout the book. But she never once tells the story of an escaper. Not just how they got out of the camp, we know all that from countless prisoner of war films, but how they made their way safely across enemy territory. How they made contact with an escape route (a few times in the book we are told that someone learned there were British airmen hiding out in the woods, or some such, but how did they learn and how do they safely go into the woods and make contact?). How do the escaper and the civilian helper, who may not know each other’s language, learn to trust each other when the wrong move means death? What route did they follow across France? What was it like hiding out all that time, being passed from one guide to another, moving secretly from safe house to safe house? How did someone who was exhausted, ill fed, possibly wounded, get across the Pyrenees to Spain or the Alps into Switzerland? All of that is surely the heart of the story of MI9, so why is it absent?

There’s a blurb on the front cover of this book: “A masterful page-turner you won’t be able to put down.” Every word of that is wrong. Which is so sad, because there is a wonderful story to be told about MI9. It’s just that Helen Fry doesn’t tell it.