Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.

Reading – and how to do it wrong

IMG_7195Sometimes  you hear – or in this case, read –  something and just want to holler NO NO NO NO NO!

You want to take someone politely but firmly by the elbow,

or maybe their STUPID BLOODY THROAT,

take them gently to one side, sit them down, and talk gently to them about how they may have got things wrong or rather

HAVE MISSED THE ENTIRE BLOODY POINT.

In this case,  two things I have read over the past 48 hours which made me want to either give someone some kind words of advice

OR SLAP THEM AROUND THE BLOODY EARS.

And it is about reading.

The first was yet another one of those awful ‘One Thousand And One Books You Must Read Before They Haul You Off To the Undertakers And Start Making With the Formaldehyde’ lists.

I hate these, mostly because they are so damn bossy, and they have at their  root the notion that there is a class of books which are ‘essential’ to make you better as a person.

To which I politely beg to differ. Oh, and

BOLLOCKS TO THAT.

There needs, I think, to be lists of Books It Is OK To Hurl At The Wall Even If Your Cultured Friends Think This Makes You A Less Worthy Person.

I think I can claim to be a reasonably well-read sort of bloke, but a core part of my world view – in all spheres of life, and certainly those relating to personal taste –  is Each To Their Own.

I don’t, for example, think the fact I’ve never really “got” Jane Austen, despite having a reasonably determined crack at Pride and Prejudice back in my Uni days, makes me any less bloody cultured than those who do.

But if it rings your bell, go for your life.

The second thing which caused a bit of a spurt in the blood pressure department was something I saw on GoodReads yesterday which invited people to list the number of books they would like to read this year, as some sort of challenge.

And, again, NO NO NO.

Both these online missives make a similar mistake – even if this second one compounds that mistake with others.

Reading should never be a box-ticking exercise – in any way, shape or form.

Firstly, it is ok to not like books other many people think are great.

In fact, I think it is essential to not like books many other people think are great. It shows an independent mind, something any intelligent reader should possess and use with vigour, enthusiasm, and the occasional cry of THIS IS A LOAD OF ARSE.

And the books you do like, the ones that you will want to re-read later and will, each time you do, discover and delight in something you missed last time, will reflect – and possibly influence –  a mix of your own personality, your own circumstances, your own experiences of life and your own outlook on that life.

This will be a matter of quality, not quantity.

And above all, relax.

Book reading  – and yesterday, as noted earlier, was World Book Day – is not a syllabus nor an obstacle course.

It is one of life’s joys.

Don’t let anyone take that away. 

Malcolm Bradbury. Thought for World Book Day

Rates of Exchange
‘…there are the politicians, and the priests, the ayatollahs and the economists, who will try to explain that reality is what they say it is.

Never trust them: trust only the novelists, those deeper bankers who spend their time trying to turn pieces of printed paper into value, but never pretend that the result is anything more than a useful fiction.

‘…. I am a writer, not a critic: I like my fictions to remain fictions.’

 

-Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Rites of Exchange’

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

Clive James, Philip Larkin, Anthony Powell, religion, days, and flapping ideologues

James, Dessaix We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love and therefore scarcely rational at all.’.

My first introduction to Clive James, apart from a snippy reference to a review at the start of one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs*, was his television shows in the 1980s. Have to confess I wasn’t a fan. That was a mix of cheap laughs and often a slightly sleazy air.

They was also his poem on the Charles and Diana wedding, which quite embarrassing.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I came across a piece of his about poet Philip Larkin, who I just had discovered.

It was like finding that Krusty the Clown was, in real life, Montaigne**.  It was perceptive, it showed things I hadn’t noticed, it was wity, humane,intelligent.

James is now dying of leukemia, and it is this death sentence which hangs over much of his latest works – it is there, of course, in the title, which has a dark pun.

And he is not going quietly:  commendably though, rather than rage he is writing, writing, against the dying of the light.

Some people parade their learning. James tended to take his on night manouvres with the Panzerdivision. If he could draw a reference to sesquipedalian continental writer, some obscure Russian, it seemed he would do so at the drop of a quotation mark.

Life, and the wisdom which comes with not only experience but the ability to learn from experience, has seen him tone this down. A bit. The learning is sill very much present: one of the favourite recent additions to my bookshelves is his  magisterial Cultural Amnesia, which is full of obscure byways and is one of those books of learning which are a joy to dip into from time to time.

But he has learned not to overdo it.

“The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful'” he comments towards the end of Latest Readings. Theres a rueful, if implicit, acknowledgement of follies of younger years there.

The critic should also, of course, send you off to check out his subjects. On the strength of reading James – not only here, but more recent pieces in the Guardian – I’ve had another bash at Conrad. Apart from “doing” Heart of Darkness at Uni, I have read little of his work. I picked up ‘Nostromo’ at a second hand store in Auckland, back in Uni days in the late ’80s but struggled with it and it was a book which was, amongst others, wiped out in The Great Sandringham Road Leaking Roof Catastrophe of 1992.

But when James writes, as he does here, that he first read it full of admiration for both Conrad and himself: Conrad for his moral scope and himself for his endurance in actually managing to read the thing, it struck a chord with me.

 

“Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.”

He has more time for Conrad now – and on James’ recommendation, I’m currently about half way through Under Western Eyes. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of some of William Golding’s later writing. It’s hard work, but its also difficult not to persevere. There is something about it which draws the reader on – well, this reader, anyway.

James quotes Samuel Johnson, approvingly, on the way language changes and notes the man famous, amongst other things, for writing a dictionary wrote as if language is an ever-changing thing. Johnson was not trying to resist this, but make sure that as it changed it did not become corrupted.

“That our languages and perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.”

All he needed to add was that unless you can criticise yourself you’re not a writer, James adds.

James remains impressed with Anthony Powell: and, sorry, but I’ve never managed to get beyond a few dozen pages with A Dance To the Music Of Time, despite having several bashes at it. But I loved James’ characterisation of Powell’s writing which, he says, ‘sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent’.
This is, I think, the crucial attributes of a great critic: the ability to write enjoyably about something the reader may not like and may even have no interest in. (In the New Zealand context, Diana Wichtel – like James, a television critic – in the Listener falls into this category. I enjoy reading her columns about tv programmes I have never watched and have no intention of doing so).

And on Larkin – who features, as he so often does, in James’ work, – he defends the poet against the backlash which followed the Andrew Motion biography in 1993 and the revelations Larkin was, in his private life, something of a porn-loving creep.

As James writes now,

‘The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, and the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty.’

He is right about the first claim. I am not so sure about that last sentence though. Sometimes the  point of Larkin is where the ugly moments obtruded on the beauty, especially in some of the ‘High Windows’ collection, not to mention some of the works which were left unpublished until after Larkin’s death.

 

Mention of Larkin brings me to Robert Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For.

I’ve never heard of Dessaix, but the title is the first line in a Larkin poem and when I saw it on the pile at good ol’ Unity Books, I swooped.

The poem, in full, is here:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

It has been one of my favourite poems since coming across it sometime in my 20s. It’s message seems to me to be you have to live the life you have got: ‘days’ does not refer to a 24 hour period but a much more broad thing, they are simply ‘where we live’.

The last four lines are marvellous. There is something risible about the image of the priest and the doctor. The ‘doctor’ here, I am sure, is not a medical person but an academic, an ideologue.

And like the priest, the ideologue comes running over the fields, all flapping coat and wagging finger, telling us how to solve the question of life with their pat answers.

Dessaix – like James, an intellectual Australian – wrote the book while recovering from a medical mishap and pondering the Meaning Of It All.

His life appears somewhat abstract: he has a (male) partner and their life together, as depicted in the memoir, appears to be very much of the mind. It is in some ways enviable but in other ways there seems something curiously airless and un-grounded about it all.

Which is not to say his book is not a thought provoking and enjoyable read.

He ponders a visit to the sub-continent, wonders about the attractions of India and in particular its religions have for well heeled Westerners.

He writes of “middle-aged women with Alice in Wonderland hair from Melbourne and Milwaukee…in search of the spiritual moment that will last a lifetime (too misquote Casanova)” – a few men and crushed linen pants and no socks, Suede and scarves, but mostly woman.

‘What is the attraction of Indian religions for Westerners? What is it the cast the spell? It’s got something to do with the way they can claim not to be religious as such I suspect. “Oh it’s not a religion it’s a way of life “– how many times have I heard that?’

 

He also points out acidly the gods of the region are a long way from the Judao-Christian God – at least, a long way from the watered down version of God taught in many churches.

He doubts anyone would speak of ‘love’ in a Kali Temple in the way the term would be used in a Christian church. Gods and the Indian imagination are much more ferocious, he writes.

There is not the message that all will be well  (Dessaix puts this in italics) which is familiar to the sort of Protestant churches he recalls from his youth.

One of his companions who has a Tamil background suggest that this sort of thing and what he calls lovingkindness   (again the italics are his) is a bit middle-class and sentimental when applied to any sort of God. Lovingkindness along with disinterested courtesy and altruism is he argues a western luxury born of economic security.

The Greek gods ‘had no time for mercy or compassion either: Zeus and its progeny are as stony heart as earthquakes and thunderstorms.’

But then so is the God of much of the old and new testaments. While Dessaix quotes almost rapturously Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

 

‘though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’.

he also points out the stony judgementalism of much of the Bible – and not just the Old Testament, either.

 

‘On Judgement Day, if I’m not mistaken, on his right hand will stand those who gave them something to eat and drink when he was hungry and thirsty, gave them close to put on when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick and imprisoned… On his left however will stand those who gave you nothing to eat or drink, did not close, and did not visit him when he was sick and imprisoned. They will be cast into everlasting fire. This now seems a bit over the top. He was about to be betrayed and killed when he made that threat, and he knew it, so he was understandably a little overwrought, but all the same the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.’

He muses this diatribe is not about just being nice to each other anymore than Hinduism is, although it largely was when he was growing up. It is about seeing Truth face-to-face, and the need to be empathetic in doing so.

‘… Go out of the way to put yourself into the shoes of others, unlock your heart as you look into their ears, and do whatever you can to ease their wretchedness. And in blessing you will be blessed.’

There is a whiff  of Hindu Darshan, in this, he notes.

There are other – often highly tangental but nevertheless enjoyable – asides.

Dessaix defines a masterpiece as a book you’ve never quite finished reading, which strikes me as being uncomfortably, if amusingly, accurate.

He suggests romantic love as being ‘often barely sexual at all when it first strikes, except very late at night and very early in the morning’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly accurate at all, but then, we all have our own different experiences in this area.

He visits Damascus in Syria, sits at a cafe, sipping a banana milkshake in the street  where a blinded St Paul is reputed to have been taken to refuge by his companions.

He meets an English tourist who is pondering doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He cheerfully says he’s not a believer and hasn’t been since nine has done it before wants to again because he likes to feel linked into something.

That striving for some sort of  ‘linking into something’ seems, in fact, to be the book’s main undercurrent.

And he reads  David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence , in which the narrator quotes Larkin’s Days.

He doesn’t find the poem disheartening or depressing even though he is aware Larkin’s poems tend to be on the dolorous side.  The scurrying priests at the end he says look like clowns, and could even be a bit on the macabre side – what is he seeing here? Death in a gown?

‘That would be more in keeping with Larkin I suppose. We live in days not in Hobart or Hull or in this year all that year or even lifetimes or eras let alone “in the moment” or even in God’s timeless gaze. We live in” our own succession of days”. Learn to value that’. 

 

Again, the italics are his.

There is much to value in both these books.

 

 

 

* James had reviewed, otherwise favourably, a previous volume and commented the work was not historically accurate and Milligan took grave offence. I will return to the Milligan books another time: for now it is worth noting Milligan did not hold a grudge, as his subsequently published letters shows.

** Ok. Slight exaggeration at both ends of the scale.

Six Blankets in the shape of a cross – an Everest epic

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)

‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. 

Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’

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Chomolungma/Sagamatha/Everest. From the North side.

So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.

By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.

This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.

The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.

It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.

And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.

The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.

The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received  bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.

He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.

Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.

You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.

But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of  today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.

These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.

The man who made the first film of Everest,  John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.

Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.

Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,

‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.

There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.

Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.

Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.

He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.

‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’

He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.

Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.

Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.

Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.

The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of  death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.

After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.

‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’

Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”

The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.

In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.

There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.

And Mallory?  He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.

There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.

The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.

Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.

Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.

Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.

By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.

The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.

I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.

I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.

Thought for the day

To have a home is to become vulnerable. Not just to the attacks of others, but to our own massacres of alienation:our campaigns of departure and return threaten to become mere adventures in voiding.

– James Wood, ‘The Nearest Thing To Life’