Sep 11, 2021

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast: Paul Dukes

Patrick Gordon and many other Russian mercenaries set sail from the local harbour. Aberdeen was a port en-route from and to Petrograd during the momentous years of the Russian Revolution.

(extract from A History of Russia c. 882 – 1996 by Paul Dukes)

Two periods from European history: Patrick Gordon, a general and rear admiral in Russia in the 17th century and the Russian Revolution in the 20th century – in common were roles played by northeast Scotland, including Aberdeen’s contribution to the Russian Enlightenment.

Professor Paul Dukes was an expert in Russian history who did so much to uncover that empire’s long links with Scotland and who by his dogged determination, and that of others, finally managed to get Patrick Gordon’s amazing and important diaries published as six volumes, edited by Dmitry Fedosov.

Wee crossed the Northwater, and through Bervy by Steenhave, and June 23. Dinedin Cowy, it being all the tyme a deluge of raine. At the Bridge of Dee, wee drank a glasse of wine, and about four o clock, came to Aberdeen, and lodged in the Katherine Raes. Many Friends came to see me.

(an extract from Patrick Gordon Diaries on a visit home to Aberdeenshire)

Patrick Gordon, a Catholic from Auchleuchries, near Ellon, who fled Scotland in 1651 aged sixteen because of religious persecution and took up arms as a mercenary (soldier of fortune)  for the Swedes, Poles and eventually Russians; persuaded by fellow-Scot, Colonel John Crawford, and a great number of Scottish men. Gordon became an adviser to the future Peter the Great and so was influential in the development of Russia, as Pyotr Ivanovich, Major-General.

Paul Dukes’ fascination with Gordon may have been one of the reasons he changed his mind about using his tenure at Aberdeen University as a stepping stone to an academic post elsewhere. He discovered right there on his doorstep a wealth of material worthy of researching aspects of Russian, Scottish and World history. When a young Dukes arrived in the mid-sixties the history department at Aberdeen showed little interest in Scottish history. It took a while to change. So, with the sixties in full swing the handsome Cambridge graduate – fluent in European languages, including Russian, took up a post of assistant lecturer in the city having previously lectured at the University of Maryland’s French and German campuses and completed his PhD at the University of London. For the next sixty or so years he could be found in an Indian restaurant in Aberdeen each Friday evening with a group of fellow-academics – the Curry Club.

On Friday 10th September, 2021, Paul’s family and friends gathered at Aberdeen crematorium to commemorate his amazingly packed life. The proceedings got underway with the theme tune from his favourite film, The Third Man. Those gathered reflected on the man we knew while a series of photographs of Paul and his family were screened to the music from test match special, Soul Limbo, and at the end of tributes was a rousing version of the Russian national anthem.

Paul, the man from south London, loved Scotland and in his element uncovering the vast web of influences between Scotland and Russia. His knowledge was vast. He was erudite. He was an affable companion who got on with statesmen, academics and the local farmers in the Howe o’ Alford. He loved northeast culture – its music, poetry and literature. Paul became friendly with David Toulmin (John Reid), a farm labourer turned author who wrote in the local Doric and Paul was closely involved in setting up the annual Toulmin Prize for Doric stories. He was also a great fan of Charles Murray, Hamewith, the Alford poet and recognised the importance of the Greig-Duncan collection of traditional ballads and folk songs of northeast Scotland. An example was The Widow’s Cruisie whose beginning amused Paul who chose it for the booklet on the Howe o’ Alford we collaborated on with its mention of places we lived in

Doon by Tough an Tullynessle / Aye the wife wi her vessel…

Paul Dukes wore his considerable knowledge lightly. Quick to laugh and share a joke, a linguist who could, allegedly, sing The Internationale in Latin and during his near-sixty years living in Aberdeen and the shire he picked up a fair number of Doric terms, delivered with his cultured English twist.

It was in the end of the sixties or early 1970s I first came across Paul Dukes. He turned up at a party in a posh part of Aberdeen, perhaps invited by one of his students. He and his companion were interrogated on the stairs by a posse of students who took great delight in refusing them entry – then one of the heels came adrift from his Cuban-heel boots and rolled downstairs.  

The next time our paths crossed was at the wedding of the late George Molland, then Senior Lecturer in History and the Philosophy of Science at Aberdeen University, when Paul and I found ourselves dancing together. I can’t actually recall when we became friends. It wasn’t when I was a student at university and attended one or two of his lectures but some time later.

It was much much later that Paul and his then partner, Cath (later wife), became near (in shire terms) neighbours of ours. We had known Cath since she came to Aberdeen in the late 1960s and through Cath we came to know Paul well. We visited each other, went on outings together, met up for lunches, scones or cake and sometimes all three. We played about on his snowshoes on the hill above their home at Tullynessle one winter when the snow lay deep there. We attended meetings of Alford History group together which is how we came to write that little booklet on the Howe. Much as Paul had encouraged interest in Scottish history at Aberdeen university during his time there he coaxed us, also historians, to take an interest in the history of the Howe o’ Alford. One of his last activities in that area was in persuading a local landowner to open up access to the remains of the Old Keig stone circle with its magnificent recumbent stone.

Paul’s conversation was always interesting and stimulating – 99.9% of the time it would veer towards Russia in some way. His mind aye active – he jumped through hoops to continue his visits to Russia, frustrated but not beaten by its labyrinthian bureaucracy in recent times. He organised cultural and academic visits between the two countries. He was always busy at some project or another – travelling to research, attending and addressing conferences, writing. Always something to discover. Always something to uncover. Always more waiting to be done. If he wasn’t planning a visit to Russia it was China or Switzerland or England. He never stopped. Having just finished his book on Manchuria (oh, the shock of discovering just how many pictures he wanted us to scan for it) he was trying to complete his memoirs in the weeks before his death. He was engaged with life right up to his death. His students would quip that his diary entries would read –

Got up, wrote book, had breakfast.

We last saw Paul when he visited us in our new home a couple of days before he was taken into hospital. What a man…what a life…what a gap in our lives he’s left.

Paul Dukes 5 April 1934 – 25 August 2021

Aug 24, 2021

Bottom Lining: blood and soil Tories, a mad monarch and debauched Duke of York

The UK is not a migrant friendly country. It says it is. It isn’t. The UK is hostile to migrants. Not all of the UK but certainly that bit that controls migration.

People have migrated. That’s it. People have migrated the whole of human existence. Migrated to find the essentials of living – basically what it takes for survival.

When humans migrated across continents they came from Africa. Oh, yes. Even you racists out there, pucker up because you are basically, African. Learn to love your genes. Of course none of those emigrants who landed on these shore about 1,000,000 years ago would be welcome today. Imagine the scene  – boats loaded with terrified people attempting to make safe landing. But wait, back then there was no evil little Home Secretary shooing them away. There was nobody here at all. And so the British African arrived. And that was that. People forgot who they were. But we haven’t got all day – fast forward to – not Patel but a government not unlike today’s unscrupulous Tory gang of spivs and toffs.

James Gillray’s depiction of British MPs getting ready for the daily grind

The year is 1803. Britain was at war with France. Again. They didn’t want any queer democratic revolutionary happenings in Blighty. So war it was. Tories were in charge. Again. A guy called Henry Addington and a mad King. Just call him George.

The mad king has his sights on Boney

Like most Tories the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Back in 1803 it was all the rage – on the take, doing a mate a favour, you scratch my back. We’re well acquainted with the idea. Well acquainted. Pub landlords getting squoodles of millions for making virus test tubes. Turns out they were – well not test tubes as science understands the term. But. Well, always a but. Didn’t have viruses back then. They did but didn’t know them as viruses.

Anyway. 1803. War. Tories in power. Tories everywhere. Even those who didn’t call themselves Tories were Tories. Tory = look out for the bottom line. In Tory minds that meant squeezing the last sweat of profit out workers. One of the most horrible jobs back about 1803 was cutting, gathering, laying out to dry, burning and collecting the ash of kelp. Kelp is a type of seaweed that was essential to manufacturing soap and glass. Everyone needs glass and/or soap – except the Hudsons. In-joke involving cruel snorting schoolkids at sight of 19th century add for Hudson’s soap because of a local family of that name who weren’t too familiar with soap. Enough of this nonsense. Soap and glass back in 1803 delivered excellent bottom lines because so much of the hard graft going into them was done by kids. What do child workers mean? Profits. Kids and their folks were sick of this work. They’d been farmers until thrown out of their homes by their lairds. This is Scotland, in the Union, in 1803. Highland lairds (landowners) found a better bottom line by throwing impoverished natives off the lands of their ancestors and replacing them with sheep. People pay to eat sheep and wear wool and sheep don’t need much looking after. Bottom line, remember.

Where were we? Yes, people were sick of this kelp drudgery. They couldn’t return to their burnt out homes invaded by sheep so many chose to migrate to North America. Migration was quite a thing across the British Isles and families who claimed to own the Highlands were so bottom lining with sheep they’d persuaded lots and lots of people to pile into boats and take their chances in North America where they might eventually be able to farm.  What I mean by persuaded is forced. Some had a choice. Some had no choice. People wept, said their last farewells to any too old or decrepit to migrate. They wouldn’t see them again. Or the land. Or the graves of their families. Choice wasn’t really a thing back then – for the poor.  One way out was to risk everything, basically everything these folk had was their lives, and emigrate. No Union bonus for them.

Pause for a link but come back a’body. Kelp, Clearances, Clanranald, Speculators and Scottish Scoundrel Lairds

Furious lairds did what they could to dissuade them from leaving – apart from paying them properly and improving their working conditions. When this didn’t work they lobbied their friends in government to make it all but impossible for these poor folk to leave the country and so leave proprietors without labour to do their dirty work for them.

The Tory government and the mad king were happy to play their part. The Passenger Vessel Act was quickly pushed through parliament in London. To add insult to injury it was tarted up as being in the interests of migrants – to protect them from being exploited by transportation organisations with less overcrowding and better treatment of passengers. Bunkum, of course. The motivation was entirely to prevent workers leaving the United Kingdom to settle in North America, for example, the fare to Canada tripled from £3 to at least £10 which in today’s money is a hike from £300, still a small fortune back in 1803, to an outrageous £1,000 per person; on a par with people smugglers skinning desperate immigrants nowadays. And we’re talking about the most impoverished folk with virtually no money to their name. It’s worth saying at this point that the Act was repealed in 1827 when prices for kelp plummeted and Highland lairds wanted rid of what had become unwanted workers – 20,000 once employed in the kelp industry. Westminster was only happy to oblige them once again by dropping the cost of migration onboard vessels to North America. Westminster politicians were as unscrupulous then as they are today.  Alexander Macdonell, chaplain of the Glengarry Fencilbes, said the 1803 Act was passed on a

specious pretext of humanity & tender benevolence towards the emigrants.

Passengers were crowded onto vessels

The swiftness of the Act’s passage through parliament took some Hebrideans by surprise. They had already given up their tenancies and were abandoned by the government for a generation.

However – always a however – there were exceptions allowed. What are friends in high places for if not to pull strings. The Earl of Selkirk who had ambitions to resettle Scots in Prince Edward Island in Canada was indulged as was the Hudson’s Bay Company (echoes of PPE contracts). Selkirk set up travel agents at Portree and other Highland ports to collect prospective migrants’ deposits, some very large amounts.

Highlanders were being pushed from pillar to post. They were despised by most of the rest of the United Kingdom as uncivilised brutes and scum. But uncivilised brutes were exactly what UK military leaders, government, the mad king and the Duke of York (who was involved in sex scandals which seem to be an occupational hazard for Dukes of York) wanted as recruits to fight its wars. A regiment was formed in North America to absorb some of these hulking Highlanders who had proved so willing to spill their blood for king and country; the Canadian Fencible Regiment appeared then disappeared in 1804 when recruits grew disgruntled over their treatment and were condemned by the military authorities, parliament, the mad king and the debauched prince as strìopach (stroppy). The government, mad king and the grand ol’ Duke of York were feargach (angry) and raged at the men they’d soft-talked into signing up for becoming ‘troublesome’. Though not so troublesome they’d leave them be. Parliament and royalty – mad and bad – were desperate for cannon fodder, fit and brave young men they could sacrifice on the altar of Empire. The 1819 Military Register refers to Highlanders’

blood copiously shed in our service.

In 1810 Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register asks why government grants that were provided to the Highlands to keep the young from migrating was not available in Ireland. Perhaps it was something to do with the copious amount of blood shed by the youth of the Highlands and Islands.

So, sheep were moved onto land where once there were people; families and villages and the communities scattered hither and yon. Not untypical were the seven or eight families who lived on a farm in Argyleshire forcibly evicted and the farm let to “a gentleman because he can give more rent” and the 100,000 acres of lands of Glenshiel (then Glen Sheal), Morvich and Dornie on the west coast of Ross-shire once filled with communities of people was advertised in 1810 as pasture for sheep and black cattle, game, fishings, lead and other minerals. 

Oh, why I left my hame by Thomas Faed

There was panic on both sides – months before the Act with warnings over the “destructive depopulation of our island” and calls for “immediate and vigorous interposition of our Legislature” to stop the removal of desperate Highlanders with no means of support by what amounted to ‘unwilling banishment’. Highlanders whose only language was the Gaelic were approached by human traffickers armed with travel documents in English. Some were inevitably duped by them.

Highlanders were the disposable property of landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the ’45 uprising and the butchery and cruelty that followed there were Scots desperate to leave to find safety. The Highlands were treated as alien territory by the British army which built forts which it filled with loyal troops to remind Highlanders who was in charge and put down resistance to its hegemony. The incursion of sheep and sporting estates created other incentives to leave. The 1803 Act was another means of controlling Highlanders. And that was another bottom line for the Union.

Aug 15, 2021

Epidemic. Scamdemic. Anti-vaxxers. Variolation and Vaccine. Smallpox to Covid.

There is no pandemic. Covid is only flu. Covid symptoms don’t exist – there’s no proof! Scamdemic!

Vaccine = mass control. I will cheerfully risk catching Covid for the sake of freedom.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Early disease inoculations and the first inoculation against smallpox in Britain

Smallpox, a dreadful virus that once ravaged the world killing million upon million – around 300 million died of it in the 20th century alone, was finally eradicated in 1980. A virus found in rodents is suspected to have spread to humans as smallpox variola 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. Having been around this length of time plenty attempts at preventing it were tried including inoculation by one form or another. In China, for example, the skin of a healthy recipient was scratched and infected matter from someone with smallpox applied to the broken surface. Alternatively, dried smallpox scabs were ground down and the material blown up the nostrils of the person being protected.

The method that led to vaccinations that are familiar to us can be traced back to the Ottoman Turk practice of inoculation which was observed in Constantinople in the early 18th century by Lady Mary Worley Montagu, a writer and wife of the British ambassador there. She was, herself, disfigured by smallpox and she was keen her children did not share her fate or worse, death.

Similar to the Chinese method, the Ottomans also transferred pus from a smallpox blister under the skin of an uninfected person, to promote mild infection and protect against a major manifestation of the disease. Lady Mary had her young son inoculated in Constantinople in 1718 by a Greek woman familiar with the technique who was assisted by the Montagu’s doctor at the embassy – a Scottish surgeon from Methlick near Aberdeen, Charles Maitland.

Back in Britain Maitland went on to inoculate Mary Montagu’s daughter and so became the first doctor in Britain to carry out an inoculation against smallpox. This was in 1722 and he continued to practise this method – being granted a licence to test variolation, as it was called, on six prisoners awaiting execution at Newgate Prison in a deal made with them; the prisoners, both women and men, survived and subsequently were pardoned. Maitland’s reputation grew and he went on to inoculate about eighty people, rich and poor, six in his native Aberdeenshire and royalty. With variolation the patient was deliberately infected with a small amount of the smallpox virus (virus was not a term known then) to initiate the disease in a mild form. Deaths that did occur were nothing like in the same numbers as those contracting smallpox through natural contagion. As well as in China and the Ottoman Empire variolation was practised in Africa and the Middle East.

The name of Charles Maitland has been regrettably omitted from the story of virus eradication in the UK. He died at his home in Aberdeen on 28 January, 1748 and is buried at Methlick graveyard. His obituary in the local press described him as

famous for inoculating the small Pox, and was the Person appointed by his present Majesty Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, which he accordingly performed, and for which he was handsomely rewarded.

A reference to him at his old university, Aberdeen’s Marischal, describes him as a surgeon, ‘the first inoculator of smallpox.’

Not everyone who underwent inoculation under Maitland survived but he was confident in his own mind of the efficacy of the technique and is said to have made that known to anyone who’d listen while taking coffee at Child’s Coffee-House near the College of Physicians in London. Maitland returned to Scotland in 1726 where one of the six children he inoculated there died although that child was already ill with hydrocephalus, fluid in the brain. Nevertheless a link was made between inoculation and the death which led to an outcry against the practice so it was another twenty years before Maitland’s technique was revisited, by another Aberdeen surgeon, a Dr. Rose.  

Such was the dreadful impact of smallpox that attempts to stem the deadly virus were on-going with Scots buying inoculations for their children where they could. I don’t know how widespread this was but here in Scotland inoculation did not necessarily involve scraping the skin and applying infected pus to the scratch instead pus-saturated worsted threads were wound tightly around the wrists of children.

Variolation to Vaccination

Vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to fight off a virus.

The next step in the battle against smallpox is far better known. While poor old Maitland’s name has been relegated to the dustbin of history just about everyone is familiar with the name Jenner. The English doctor who was born a year after Charles Maitland’s death noticed that women employed milking cattle were often infected by a cattle disease, cowpox, that erupted as sores on the skin. However, these women seemed to be protected from smallpox so he collected pus from a cowpox sore on the hand of milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and introduced it under the skin of an arm belonging to nine-year-old James Phipps, son of his gardener, to test his theory that inoculation of cowpox could guard against smallpox. A few weeks later he exposed the boy to smallpox. Thankfully he survived. It appeared the method worked. Jenner tested it again and again. Within five years he was confident enough to promote the practice as a means of combatting the deadly disease. Variolation was outlawed in 1840.

Nowadays vaccination can refer to any of the protections we are fortunate to have against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, meningitis, pneumococcal, flu etc but the term vaccination derives from variolae vaccinae  – cow pustules (vacca being Latin for cow.) The word vaccination began to come into common usage from about 1800. The matter used to inoculate against smallpox, cowpox lymph, was frequently taken from cows’ udders but also from the heel of a horse when rubbed with grease (cited in a reference from Aberdeen in 1853.) How do they discover this?

Who should have responsibility for vaccinations? This was hotly disputed in the nineteenth century. Doctors or poor law officials? As with variolation, vaccinations had to be bought by individuals and so it was mainly wealthier folk including the aristocracy who took advantage of them. This ad hoc approach to vaccination meant large sections of the population were unprotected and outbreaks of smallpox continued to ravage towns.  

Compulsion and the Anti-vaxxers

Compulsory vaccination was introduced into England and Wales in 1854. Scotland followed a decade later, in 1864. Dr Seaton’s Handbook of Vaccination: The Registrar-General for Scotland reported that of the 221,980 children born in Scotland between the day the Act came into operation, Jan 1, 1864 and Dec 31, 1865 – only 5,382 were not registered as vaccinated.

Children were the most-at-risk group and so parents were urged to do their duty and ensure their babies under three months of age were vaccinated –

the well-being of the community should not be sacrificed to the whims and senseless prejudices of those eccentric individuals

 Anti-vaccinationers – let’s give them their current title, anti-vaxxers, came from every part of society including the medical professions – and across Europe. In Spain and France unvaccinated children were not allowed to attend schools.

It was found that where rates of vaccination were high incidents of smallpox declined but then eventually complacency set in. With fewer occurrences of the disease people asked why bother vaccinating their children. Vaccination became a victim of its own success and the virus was able to take hold once again.

With cases rising further laws were introduced to reinforce compulsion, in 1871 in England and Wales. In Scotland public compliance with vaccination was greater than in England and Wales with up to 95% of babies vaccinated in the 1860s but here, too, opposition to compulsion was growing with people complaining of their liberty being impinged upon by the state.   

In his evidence to the Vaccination Committee a Dr Wood of Edinburgh said,

that there were very few unvaccinated persons in Scotland.

Dr Playfair, MP for Edinburgh University, was in no doubt compulsory vaccination in Scotland and Ireland could stamp out smallpox but a short time later, in 1871, an epidemic of smallpox raged through Scotland with a death rate of 36,000 per million of the population. The figure for coronavirus deaths in the UK is 1,870 which puts the impact of smallpox into some perspective for we find Covid-19 terrifying enough to live through.

Leith, Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen are suffering most severely from the epidemic. (The Lancet, 17 February 1872)

An anti-vaxxer newspaper, The Vaccination Inquirer, was begun by William Tebb in 1879. Tebb refused to have his own child vaccinated and wrote pamphlets condemning vaccines such as Government Prosecutions for Medical Heresy which is a transcription of his own court appearance.

Anti-vaxxers got their message out through publications such as Tebb’s along with articles and letters in newspapers, the law courts, public meetings and petitions. They were funded by the wealthy and better-off middle classes – parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords, church ministers, Sirs this and that, the odd countess, Isaac Pitman of shorthand fame and a host of other including a John Davie of Dunfermline, James Greig of Glasgow and Rev John Kirk of Edinburgh and presumably Uncle Tom Cobley.

One of the most prominent anti-vaxxers was Peter Taylor MP for Leicester, a town notorious for its low number of vaccinated children and high death rate. Leicester was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘the Mecca of antivaccination.’ Peter Taylor was the son of a silk merchant and member of the wealthy Courtauld family. Taylor who was president of the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination wrote the preface to the London anti-vaxxers’ bible of 1881 in which he criticised

The small band of medical experts who are paid certain thousands by the State to champion the cause of vaccination…facts which are not facts…statistics cooked into a condition of hopeless confusion.

Loss of liberty aside their main argument was that smallpox was less fatal before vaccination was introduced and fatal cases increased with compulsory vaccination from 1854 (England and Wales.)

Scotland’s Anti-Vaccination League was set up in 1896 and that same year exceptions were allowed – on grounds of conscience. Within a few years the words conscientious objectors would become very familiar at the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-18 but before then the term applied to a parent, usually the father, who objected to his child being inoculated. Where no excuse was accepted by the authorities a parent was fined 20 shillings or a few days in jail for refusing to have a child vaccinated.

Objectors to vaccination complained of interference to their parental authority. Pro-vaxxers accused them of exposing their little ones to ‘the horrors of smallpox’ and enabling the deadly disease to spread like wildfire as the cost of everyone else’s liberty. Vegetarian anti-vaxxers could become conscientious objectors on grounds the vaccine was taken from animals – from cowpox lymph. There were anti-vaxxers who dismissed vaccination as “delusive superstition.”

Smallpox was horrible to endure and “the most terrible of all the ministers of death” that filled churchyards with its victims argued Thomas Macaulay the historian, politician and son of Zachary Macaulay the Scottish anti-slave trade activist. Many were not persuaded. Petitions were distributed and demonstrations attended. In England’s anti-vax hot spot, Leicester, in 1884 about 1200 people were summoned by the courts for refusing to have their children vaccinated and two-thirds of the town’s children were unvaccinated. The Vaccination Acts ‘are a dead letter, and there has not been a single case of smallpox in twelve months.’ The Weekly News on August 23, 1884.

The next year 5,000 non-vaxxers were identified in the town where 20,000 plus a horse and a cow marched in protest. They (people not the animals) claimed vaccines were poisons being taken from horses and cattle – as if most of those demonstrating never ate beef or drank milk from a cow. As for the Belgian contingent that brought their own banner to the parade, if horse wasn’t on their dinner plates more often than nought then I’m a Dutchman. At the end of the demo the ‘Vaccination Acts’ were burned. Then they all sang Rule Britannia (except for the horse and the cow) and went home.

Scotland had less trouble from anti-vaxxers, took a firmer line on compulsory vaccinations than in England and Wales and had fewer cases of smallpox as a consequence. But here, too, anti-vaxxers made a lot of noise. Protests broke out from Inverness to probably just about everywhere. The Leicester influence in the guise of a Dr Hedwin turned up in Glasgow in 1903 to lead a protest demo in the city. A year or two earlier a Glaswegian locked up in Duke Street prison for refusing to have his child vaccinated or pay the fine wrote to the newspapers. He was one of those Scots who seeks guidance on all things legal from English not Scots law. He argued that were he in England he would be free a day early due to how England calculated confinement. He also complained about being given sour milk with his skilly (porridge) and made a bizarre Biblical reference to Ezekiel and pastry before describing prison warders as Godalmighties, thick-skulled and ignorant concluding that smallpox could be cured with prayer so vaccinations weren’t necessary.

We can dismiss his ravings because compulsory vaccination in Scotland did have a dramatic impact on smallpox with the Scots and Irish described as ‘long-headed people’ for their support for vaccination. Ninety-seven percent of children six months and older were vaccined against smallpox in the first years of the twentieth century and then prime minister, Balfour, responded to anti-vaxxers demand they shouldn’t be treated like criminals by telling them anyone whose chimney went on fire was held responsible and fined and those opposing vaccination of their children were just as criminal. The Lords went against his wishes and voted to allow conscientious objection to vaccinations in Scotland for the first time in 1907.

Back in the nineteenth century as now feelings were strong on both sides of the vaccination debate. Then, as now, some anti-vaccination zealots were dismissed as bigots. We have Twitter, a platform not available to anti-vaxxers in the 18th and 19th centuries, to spread ill-informed prejudice but those anti-vaxxers a couple of hundred years ago though not keyboard warriors made a fair amount of noise without social media and had friends in high places who provided their blinkered ideas with a veneer of respectability. They lost in the end. Smallpox was eliminated in 1980. Another virus and another bunch of anti-vaxxers emerged as barking mad as the first. They won’t win either.

Aug 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 8 – final one in the series: Fallada’s Berlin, Musil’s pointless modernist novel and Laxness’ Independent People – a nice note to end on

This is it, folks. We’ve reached the final blog about a random bookshelf in a random bookcase in a not-so-random house in northeast Scotland.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann is a cracker. Otto and Anna Quangel are an ordinary couple living in Berlin surviving as best they can in Hitler’s Germany. It is 1940 and World War 2 is in its second year. Their son Ottochen has been killed fighting in France. With their lives turned upside down by Hitler’s fascists Otto decides to do what he can to fight back and embarks on a one-man campaign of resistance.

Otto writes comments on postcards and leaflets, urging people to work slowly, sabotage the factory production that finances Hitler’s military campaigns and generally encourages individuals to do what they can to defy the state. He distributes the postcards around his neighbourhood. It is only a matter of time before this anonymous activism is brought to the attention of the Gestapo – and Otto’s daring defiance enters a new and more deadly stage.

Hans Fallada was the pen-name of Rudolph Ditzen, born in 1893 in Greifswald, Northeast Germany. Fallada comes from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale tradition. The Grimms were arguably the world’s best story-tellers, certainly the most famous – famous, too, for horror often woven into their tales. But nothing imagined by the Grimm Brothers can match the terror experienced in Germany by those opposed to its terrifying totalitarian regime. Fallada has his readers in a cold sweat because it is obvious there will be no happy ending to this tale despite the humour he injects into it. His own life was pretty horrific. A drunk and drug addict Fallada killed a friend in a duel and shot at his wife. Clearly mentally unstable during periods of his life Fallada died suddenly of a heart attack in 1947.

Translator Hofmann is an author in his own right, a poet he has translated the works of many authors, including Joseph Roth and Kafka. Born in Freiburg in 1957 into a literary family who moved from Germany to Bristol and then Edinburgh the adult Hofmann divides his life between Germany and the USA. He received an award for his translation of Hertz Muller’s fabulous novel, The Land of Green Plums – an astonishingly seductive piece of writing. Note to self: add to the growing list of must re-reads.

Back to Alone in Berlin –

The postwoman Eva Kluge slowly climbs the steps of 55 Jablonski Strasse. She’s tired from her round, but she also has one of those letters in her bag that she hates to deliver, and is about to have to deliver, to the Quangels, on the second floor.

Before that, she has a Party circular for the Persickes on the floor below. Persicke is some political functionary or other – Eva Kluge always gets the titles mixed up. At any rate, she has to remember to call out ‘Heil Hitler!’ at the Persicke’s and watch her lip!

Later Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is visited by his boss, SS Obergruppenfuhrer, Prall. After exchanging Heil Hitlers, Escherich explains he has been thinking about

…the postcard phantom – the “Hobgoblin”, as I like to call him.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“No reason. Just thought of it. Maybe because he wants to make everyone afraid.”

Escherich hasn’t the faintest idea how to track down the dangerous postcard hobgoblin who is spreading anti-fascist thoughts among the people – his boss is impatient.

Take that grin off your face, you loon! If something like this comes to Himmler’s attention, all bets are off, and who knows if we won’t meet one day in Sachsenhausen, reminiscing about the good old days when all we did was stick flags into maps!”

A serious topic tackled with a lightness of touch and humour. But . . . but this is grim reading for we know we are learning about actual events and for the Quangels read Elise and Otto Hempel, a working class couple who had taken little interest in politics before Elise’s brother was killed in the war. This one incident altered their lives forever. Their postcard campaign was crude and perhaps did not have much effect other than place their lives in great danger. Hitler’s Germany showed no tolerance to those who questioned it or resisted being a tool of its repressive controls. It was a brave act to do what the Hempel’s did. No-one knew who among neighbours were informers and there were plenty of them. That’s how totalitarian regimes survive – by breeding suspicion, fear and treachery. The inevitable happened and someone identified them. They were arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo, found guilty in the People’s Court and sentenced to death by beheading in March 1943. Fallada was given access to their Gestapo file.

Reading Alone in Berlin one is reminded how easily a country can slip into a totalitarian state through apathy and compliance by ordinary people. It is a whole other matter finding the courage to resist and bring down that state.

That’s another book onto the must read again list.

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The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil is a book I’ve never read, nor have I any intention of doing so. Why? It is huge for a start, 1130 pages long. I have aversion to huge books for several reasons – mainly I tend to get bored before the end and they are almost impossible to hold comfortably. According to the publicity speel on the cover I’m missing out on, “A great novel” and “towering achievement” – such is life.

The Man Without Qualities belongs to my husband who has read it. Tell me something he hasn’t read. He bought it with a book token given to him by my late mother, in 2009, (another voracious reader right up to the end of her extremely long life.)

Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt in Austria in 1880. A scientist/philosopher/military sort of man he turned to novel writing – as one does. This book was threatened with being banned in Germany and Austria and to avoid too close scrutiny by the Nazis Musil emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. He died during World War 2. A completed edition of this book was published in 1978.

Remember Schnitzler from an earlier blog in this series? His Dream Story failed to impress me and I’m beginning to think there’s a trend happening here as far as Austrian writers are concerned. According to the only person in this house who has read it, The Man Without Qualities is a book in which nothing happens. It is a modernist novel and nothing of consequence may be expected. Modernist writing looked to create writing that was different from traditional story-telling. So there is no story. That is the point. If point is not too constructive a description.

On that age-old question: what would you do if you could rule the world for a day? Musil responded, “I suppose I would have no choice but to abolish reality.”

Call me picky but I don’t find that helpful. I suppose it is clever in a smart Alec sort of way.

The first chapter of the book is entitled: “From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops” and it continues in this vein.

The story, such as it is, is set in the aftermath of the First World War and Germany’s crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire.

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility.”

Don’t you know that every perfect life would be the end of art?”

I bet he was a bundle of laughs to live with.

The book was unfinished at Musil’s death, of a stroke, in 1942. Just where it might have gone and how many pages it would have taken Musil to tell his non-story there is no point in guessing.

*

And finally, Sjálfstætt fólk – Independent People by Halldór Laxness the pen name of Halldór Guðjónssonan, Icelandic writer and translator from Reykjavik who lived between 1902 and 1998. His translator, James Anderson Thompson, hails from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Thompson travelled to Iceland in 1931 which presumably inspired him, later, to translate Independent People (his only translation of any book and his translation is regarded as the finest of any of the book’s translations into any language.) J. A. Thompson’s apotheosis came with the Laxness novel for his biographies can be dismissive of him as a failed academic and hotelier. Laxness and Thompson worked closely on the translation and Laxness appreciated Thompson’s brilliant effort which took him eight years to complete.

Laxness won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952, the World Peace Council Literary Prize in 1953, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and the Sonning Prize in 1969. Throughout his long life he wrote until struck down with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s.

Another long novel although about half the size of the previous one, coming in at 544 pages, it was first published in 1936. Set in rural Iceland it tells of  Guðbjartur Jónsson, known as Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who longs for independence and eventually owning his own farm that he re-names Summerhouses from its original name of Winterhouses. He brings a wife home to Summerhouses. Rosa is already pregnant by another man. She hates Summerhouses and the life she’s expected to live. It’s not a good start to the marriage but that’s the best of it although there is a daughter who softens the heart of Bjartur. Described in the New York Review of Books as not just great but “the book of your life” – some accolade.

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.”

Laxness is referring to Icelandic sagas that told of Irish monks, the Vestmanna or west men,  who spread Christianity up the islands of Scotland and across to Iceland before Norse families arrived in the latter 9th century.  Iceland shared with other island communities a struggle to retain their young people who saw the outside world offering them what they imagined must be better than the life familiar to them.

Take Ragnas of Urtharsel, for instance; how did he fare? He had three sons, all as strong as horses; Their beards had hardly begun sprouting before they were off to sea. One was drowned and the other two finished up in America. And did they drop their mother a line in spring, when their father died? No, not a word; not even a couple of shillings to keep her mind off her sorrow.”

Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.”

Having been born in Iceland, Laxness died in Iceland but in-between he travelled the world absorbing ideas but it is his native Iceland that stimulated his greatest works, including Independent People. Curiously a stay in America attracted him to socialism. Laxness’ home is now a museum.

And that, as they say, is that; from What Katy Did to its near neighbour, Independent People. I’ve found delving into the shelf of books stimulating as it has encouraged me to break out of my rather limited choices of reading material and further explore the many books this house has to offer, as first time and repeat reads. I won’t be reading Musil but I’ve already gone back into Independent People, though it will take me a while to get through it.

The initial idea of the exercise, to dip into a different book each day for 5 mins fell by the wayside when I decided to turn it into a blog so I’ve decided to carry on with my daily 5 min reads across the bookshelves without becoming diverted into doing something different in the form of blogging and I won’t be running out of books anytime soon. With the easing of Covid restrictions we managed to divest ourselves of eight boxes of books this week – into the Oxfam book shop. We still have seven bookcases of books stored in the garage and others scattered about the house. I might not be inclined to linger in the garage during winter but it’s a pleasant enough place when temperatures outside are reasonable. Still, I’ll start in the house and I may never make it into the garage at all. Thanks for keeping me company and to those of you who got in touch a special thank you. Enjoy reading whatever your own choices for passing the time/learning/escaping might be. And remember to stay safe.

Jul 16, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 7 – culture, cannibalism and courage

I ended last time with Charles Dickens, a wonderful writer whose novels and commentaries evoke Victorian England in all its captivating awfulness to the extent they found a new lease of life in the guise of the television serial and Christmas special. If it isn’t Dickens then it’s Austen. And if it’s Dickens or Austen it’s Christmas. Except nowadays Christmas tends to be cheap and trashy dancing shows and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. The progress of civilisation, huh? With both Dickens and Austen we feel we know their worlds for we’ve been exposed to a succession, a very long succession, of directors and scriptwriters who’ve reinvented their characters and storylines, adapting them to the mores of the day. Of course, we don’t. We have not the faintest sense of the privileges and suffering they wrote about. Suffering we’ll come back to but none can deny that many a Dickensian character sticks in our minds as clear as any picture because of his sheer ability to distil their persona onto a page of letters. Pictures are a powerful medium – I feel a link coming on.

Think Renaissance with a capital R and you are probably thinking pictures and characters. First book up is The Penguin Book of the Renaissance edited by J. H. Plumb. Plumb had a long and glittering career as a historian. Not your average working historian for a glance at his Wiki page explains how this well-connected academic was so successful he was able to ‘indulge his taste for fine food and wine, build a collection or rare porcelain; drive a Rolls-Royce’ and had residences in England, France and New York. But this isn’t about him.

I used this little book when studying History of Art at university and for some reason while other books from that time went the way of many things, this one has stuck fast to a book shelf, possibly because it is small and can be squashed in between other books. Anyway, renaissance art was one of the major topics in my degree cannily chosen to overlap with aspects of my history degree which included Renaissance Italy. Art was intrinsically mixed up with the treacherous, inspiring, enlightening social and political events of that tumultuous period – ever fascinating and exciting.

It is impossible to isolate the art: painting, drawing, etching, sculpture, architecture from dynastic struggles between feuding families who were the main patrons of the arts. This was the world of political murders and unquenchable corruption that affected religious and lay life: the Borgias, Sforzas, Medici, Machiavelli. Ruthless tyrants and immoral politics. The wealth and privileges enjoyed by the great families associated with the renaissance was only made possible because of the craftsmen and women who manufactured items, agricultural labourers who worked their lands, their guards and militiamen who protected them from equally rapacious rival clans or families. Not that any Borgia or member of the Medici would have acknowledged they were dependent on anyone so low.  

Fifteenth century Italy – magnificent and cruel. Artists who stood on the shoulders of their forebears of classical Rome and Greece in developing their specialisms that so beguiled their unsavoury patrons continue to fill us with awe and admiration today – indulgent, ravishingly beautiful – often providing pictorial evidence of that period. Architects designed homes for the powerful, fortresses, chapels and churches. They painted their portraits positioning them alongside saints as though they were part of the narrative of Christ’s life and work. They flattered and massaged the egos of Italy’s elites. And that got them more work.

The book looks at many works in detail: The Tribute Money by Masaccio – researching Scottish farming many years ago I chanced on a bull in the Scottish Highlands called Masaccio. I liked that. But back to the art. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his figure of David, Fra Angelico’s Life of St Nicholas.

The arts at this period flourished to a level that was astonishing and inspiring despite or was it because of the back-stabbing that was happening in pursuit of power both religious and secular, including in the Vatican. Whereas now rich and powerful individuals and families indulge themselves and show off their wealth through owning fast cars, enormous yachts, racing horses, properties in the world’s chic destinations, trips into space and art collections – but often collecting art created by long-dead artists who starved to death in the proverbial garret. Fine art consumption, a bit like hoarding bitcoin. Back in the renaissance living artists were given contracts by princes and tyrants keen to bask in the glory of an outstandingly beautiful cathedral or sumptuously painted ceiling. Okay, so they didn’t pay much but usually they paid something.

Paintings, sculpture, architecture and other associated crafts were rarely just seen for their intrinsic beauty but as property and narratives that carried a message to influence behaviour.

Nowadays? Well, there are pally newspapers and TV editors to massage the egos of the great and the good (sic) and mould a public impression of them that flatters and deceives. Different times, different media but essentially buying an image has been around for a very long time.

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And from the old world to the new – or so those Europeans who settled in what became America would have us believe was new. A new world to them, certainly. Again, there are comparisons with today. We’ve become inured to flimsy vessels taking to the seas packed to the gunwales with the scared, the frightened and the ambitious. It was ever thus. Where do you think we in the British Isles first came from? Under a cabbage leaf? Think boats and migration.

The factors that influence people to up-sticks and migrate to another country or a different part of a country vary but for most it is in the hope of a better life – somewhere safer, more pleasant, land available, work available, exploration. The ‘pioneers’ who took to a temporary itinerant life to travel westwards across America from east to west, to California, were following their own individual drives but surely all shared the belief they were heading towards better times.

Ordeal by Hunger by George R. Stewart is one of the most harrowing books you will ever read. He tells the story of the final group of the 500 wagons that left Independence Illinois for California in the spring of 1846. The pioneers tailing onto this huge body of migrants came to be collectively known as the Donner-Reed Party. Stewart’s account was first published in 1936 but our copy is from the press of Ace Star Books, 1960 edition, which we bought from Old town Books in Tempe, Arizona in April 1991.

During that spring of 1846 hundreds of people; single people, servants, whole families (there were many children), rich and poor thought to undertake a journey of more than 2,000 miles for a host of reasons – to escape difficulties, to find land to farm, to forge new businesses, to find work, to find religious freedom, for adventure – all adults had their own reasons. They were not the first to head westwards and of those who made it through some sent letters to their folks back east or in other parts of Europe that California was a fine place to settle and bring up a family. So, under the leadership of George Donner and James Reed this last group set off along the Oregon Trail. They would have anticipated reaching California by fall, all going to plan but the plan was altered. Instead of continuing along the established trail as those ahead of them had done it was decided they would take a largely untried route recommended by Lansford Hastings, an explorer who had never attempted to take a wagon across this inhospitable and unbroken diversion. On the map it appeared Hasting’s trail would shorten the journey and because of earlier mishaps that had held up the wagon train the Donner-Reed party was behind in their schedule and winter was fast approaching in the high territory that lay ahead. This decision was their undoing. They became completely bogged down in the mountains in treacherous conditions. Snow tens of feet deep prevented wagons progressing, oxen disappeared and horses couldn’t cope. What hope was there for men, women and children on foot, fast running out of food? Practically none. These were not mountain men and women but people used to the plains of the east. They did not have the knowledge of folk living in extreme conditions who in any case would not have considered embarking on moving people, the majority children, and goods across untamed boulder and tree strewn mountainous landscapes with snow, ice, gale-force winds and swollen rivers.  

It is impossible to imagine the extent of miseries experienced by the men, women and children who found themselves stranded in a living nightmare.  One by one they weakened, grew sick or got injured and began to die. Some of the stronger ones endeavoured to scale the mountains to make contact with help. One or two made it. They were met with enthusiasm from settled Californians who volunteered food, money and animals and some risked their own lives to rescue those trapped across the Continental Divide who were dug into rudimentary shelters completely submerged under deep snow with nothing to eat.

Well before this stage because of the delays in crossing the lower part of the trail food was in short supply and water frequently unavailable for many miles. To try to prevent their mouths feeling so dry distressed children were given a flattened bullet to chew on. With food supplies dwindling to non-existent some folk were reduced to eating grass. That was fine, in a sense, until heavy snows piled feet high over the ground. Animal hides, used as tent covers and cut into strips to make fastenings for quickly manufactured snowshoes from ox yokes were soaked and cooked over fires and eaten – a choice of food over shelter. They ate tallow and mice. Then it was decided they would have to eat human flesh. One can only imagine the tensions ensuing during a discussion about how this might be done. It’s almost unbearable to read a passage describing two men contemplating firing loaded revolvers at each other until one is shot dead instead of black-and-white murder. When it came to eating human flesh revulsion prevented this for long and some never would touch it except to keep children alive.

Stewart is a good story-teller. His descriptions of landscape and horror are well-done. And, too, his accounts of kindnesses for this is not simply a horror story but one where adversity brought out the very best in people as well as the worst. There are so many characters involved it is hard for the reader to keep individuals in focus but there’s a roster of the Donner Party at the end and a condensed itinerary plus other notes on people and incidents to assist.

Accounts of their harrowing trial came from survivors and diaries kept by some of the migrants. Forty-eight of the ninety pioneers who set out made it to California. Some fared well in their new lives but for others so deeply were they affected by the horror imposed upon them they were never able to reconcile what they lived through.

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As though there was method in the madness of filling bookshelves the next book along is also about the land featuring above, only thirty years later and from the experience of a lone traveller – I offer you A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.

There’s a bad breed of ruffians,” she’s told, “but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you. There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.

And so it was.

Isabella Lucy Bird certainly had pluck. Daughter of an English clergyman she was born in 1831 and owing to her fragile state of health was advised to spend time abroad in American and Canada. And so the 23 year old began on an incredible set of travels around the world. Not quite sure the adventure she embarked upon was quite what that English doctor had in mind but what was soon abundantly clear there was nothing at all wrong with her other than, perhaps, boredom with her life in England.

From San Francisco she took to the saddle riding for hundreds of miles around the Rockies mainly inhabited then by wild men and animals, proving herself braver and more resilient than everyone gave her credit for at the outset. There in the Rockies she fell in love – with the place – the immense grandeur of its mountains, the flowers of the foothills and many of the animals still abundant in the 1870s. And though she hardly admits it, surely fell in love with one Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent – beguiled by his kindness, his poetry and long blond curls.

Okay, so I’ve cheated. The passage above comes from a blog I wrote some years ago on the intrepid Ms Bird and being someone who doesn’t believe in wasting energy reinventing the wheel I’m reproducing a fragment from my earlier piece, A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks. For the whole blog click on the link:

A Woman’s Woman – in a land where men were shot like skunks | Lenathehyena’s Blog (wordpress.com)

I’ve read Isabella’s book several times and on each occasion find it totally spellbinding. That’s not to say I like Isabella for I find her prejudices, her racism and disparaging remarks about native Americans hard to stomach but I admire her guts and sense of adventure. Hers is an astonishing story recorded in a series of letters sent home to her family which were published in 1879 which paints a picture of the West as proficiently as any artist with a brush: her palette the carmine, vermillion, greens, blues, yellows, orange, violets, lemons of the skies, the grasses, the hillsides, the gorges, the mountain streams of Colorado so the reader can imagine those crimson sprays of Virginia creeper, snow-capped summits, colossal rocks crested with pines, “beautifully arranged by nature,” blue jays and chipmunks, deer, elk bighorn, grizzlies, mountain lion, bison, rattle snakes, tree snakes – every kind of snake. Her writing is lush and spare at the same time for she doesn’t tell all.

If you haven’t yet read it then give this one a go. I’m not a great one for re-reading books, with a few exceptions such as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Bird’s tales of the American West. Her book on China I didn’t like as much.

We’re just about there, folks. Next time should do it. End of a bookshelf. Till then forget Freedom Day. Being free to contract Covid is no kind of freedom so take care and keep well.

Jul 1, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 6 – Facts, facts, big balloon, hard times, Ibn Khaldun to Charles Dickens

Books on a shelf Week 6

Hullo again. I have four books for you this time around. Next up along the shelf is Yves Lacoste’s Ibn Khaldun: The birth of History and The Past of the Third World.

Ibn Khaldun was an eminent Arab historian born into a wealthy Andalusian family in Tunis in 1332. He died in Cairo in 1406 and between these two dates he was an eminent diplomat, a distinguished soldier during a period of near-incessant wars and one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. We in the west inhabit a strange cocoon existence blissfully ignorant of so much that is important in terms of people, events and inventions outside of our cocoon – assuming whoever is out there simply isn’t as smart as us.

Who hasn’t heard of sociology – the study of society? No-one reading this, I would guess. And the person behind sociology was? … the French philosopher Comte is frequently named as the mind behind the social science but while he never used the term, sociology, it was the diplomat and soldier, Khaldun, whose work on civilisation and economics who created the groundwork for sociology a long time before Comte.

It has also been said of Ibn Khaldun that he was the father of History with a capital H. While his interests were mainly confined to North Africa his influence extended way beyond there. And in any case North Africa even during Khaldun’s time was no backwater but an area where extensive trading took place that –

… stretched from the Mediterranean coast to India, China and Japan and which also took in the eastern coasts of Africa and the Western Sudan.

Christian merchants met the Maghrebian traders who brought gold across the Sahara from the Sudan.”

I should mention the author of this book on Khaldun, Yves Lacoste, a French Moroccan geographer and geopolitician. He attracted criticism from the USA for calling out its bombing campaigns intended to cause widespread flooding with subsequent civilian deaths during the Vietnam War. In this book he settles some myths about Arab invasions of the Maghreb (northwest Africa) which emerged through historians’ misreading of Khaldun’s works.  

Such was Khaldun’s reputation that Tamerlane, the fearsome 14th century Turco-Mongol nomadic conqueror and emperor, asked him to become his historiographer and adviser.

In the 14th century the greatest political entity in the world stretched from the Danube to Annam. It was made up of the various Mongol principalities that had emerged from the empire forged a century earlier by Ghenghis Khan.”

Khaldun’s adopted Egypt enjoyed great prosperity from its pivotal role in the mercantile economy that went along with widespread trade between Asia and Europe. It also had a highly productive agricultural sector.  

… the Ottoman Turks drove Byzantines and crusaders out of Asia Minor and invaded Thrace, Serbia and Bulgaria.”

We can watch that happening in Netflix’s Resurrection – Ertugrul in real-time – or so it seems.

Noyan the Mongol leader and Ertugrul the Turkish bey

The Balkans remained under Turkish rule for 400 years. A tumultuous period of great political rivalries and frequent wars to establish political states – the Mongols driven out of China by the Ming dynasty which lasted into the 17th century; in India Mongols frequently battled Turkish Muslims and Hindus; Seljukian Turks resisted repeated onslaught from the Crusaders (Mongols killed one Caliph by rolling him up in a rug and riding their horses over him for they feared if they simply bludgeoned him to death and his blood touched the earth it would be offended.)

Hard Times. I could go on. Brutal and fascinating this period certainly is. And unfamiliar to many of us. And you’ll note I confined myself to history, not sociology. And while I might dip into the book again I’m more than content to pick up my Turkish history from Resurrection – Ertugrul.

*

Did I mention Hard Times? Hang on in there for first up is Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller, The Lamplighter to be read at Dusk, Sunday under three Heads, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices.

Opening this fine illustrated copy from 1906 I learn it contains a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences written by Dickens between 1860 and 1861, initially for his journal, All the Year Round. They comprise the writer’s impressions of life as found on his travels locally and internationally. Here was a man with itchy feet who was constantly on the road. It opens with a hint of mystery over who the person is that is being described. It is, of course, Dickens himself.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. During his boyhood he came to know poverty and suffering; famously his father was jailed for debt when Dickens was twelve and the child taken out of school and sent to work at a boot-blacking factory to contribute to the family’s income. The privations suffered by his own family made him sensitive to that of others – and there were plenty others in Britain in the nineteenth century.

That said and however magnificent a writer Dickens was, and he was, his works express many of the prejudices of his time. There are racist asides and assumptions that grate with today’s readers (vast majority of) as well as much that is acutely observed and pertinent. I don’t dismiss or excuse his racism on grounds that British society was so steeped in it when Dickens was alive for not everyone then was racist so he is responsible for his own bigotry but neither will I reproduce passages that I regard as offensive to all good people.

I will quote the first few lines of the book –

Allow me to introduce myself – first negatively.

No landlord is my friend and brother, no chambermaid loves me, no waiter worships me, no boots admires and envies me. No round of beef or tongue or ham is expressly cooked for me, no pigeon pie is especially made for me, no hotel-advertisement is personally addressed to me — I am both a town traveller and a country traveller, and am always on the road.”

Dickens visits a workhouse in London’s east end where he encounters –

… two old ladies in a condition of feeble dignity, which was surely the very last and lowest reduction of self-complacency to be found in this wonderful humanity of ours. They were evidently jealous of each other, and passed their whole time (as some people do, whose fires are not grated) in mentally disparaging each other, and contemptuously watching their neighbours. …they would fly at one another’s caps”

There he finds a young woman also incarcerated who is evidently depressed and who will never mix with outside society. Who will never be someone –

…who is courted, and caressed, and loved, and has a husband, and bears children, and lives in a home, and who never knows what it is to have this lashing and tearing coming upon her?”

There were many babies here, and more than one handsome young mother. There were ugly young mothers also, and sullen young mothers, and callous young mothers.”

He saw people who were forced to pick oakum.  Picking oakum involved inmates of workhouses (or prisons) splitting heavy tarry ropes, the sort used onboard wooden ships, to reclaim the oakum by hitting each strand with a heavy mallet. The oakum was then sold for caulking wooden ships, timber buildings, plumbing and so on.  

At Liverpool docks Dickens encountered Poor Mercantile Jack and the celebrated entertainer

Mr Banjo Bones, looking very hideous with his blackened face and limp sugar-loaf hat; beside him, sipping rum-and-water, Mrs Banjo Bones …”

Let’s move on.

Time and his wife from The Uncommercial Traveller

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Hard Times is set in the fictional Coketown in the north of England. This is a town where everyone is expected to work – everyone that isn’t rich that is – so that children must do their bit to add a few pennies to the abysmally low family incomes of the time. It’s not pretty and it’s not kind. This is brutal England where the very lifeblood and breath of the poor is sucked out for profit. There’s Josiah Bounderby – bumptious and lying scoundrel quick to take advantage of the vulnerable. And Gradgrind – facts, facts, Gradgrind. Hard Times – what it says on the cover is what we get.

The novel opens with my favourite Dicken’s lines that reflect the dullest of minds –

Now, what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.  Stick to Facts, sir!’

The speaker is Gradgrind the school board superintendent.

In this life we want nothing but facts, sir. Nothing but facts!”

Then there is Bounderby –

A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.”

Tucked inside at page 51!! I found a note from my dentist – three dentists and three addresses ago, in 1994. It’s an actual written letter, begads, when patients were written to and not texted. On the back, because I don’t believe in wastage, is a phone number for Port Meirion that I can only think had something to do with arranging a visit there during my one and only Welsh holiday. You know the place where that weird TV series, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan and a muckle white balloon, was set. Nowadays we employ a muckle white balloon as prime minister. And because I really don’t believe in waste on the paper is a list, quite a long list for fruit and veg. It’s so long I suspect it covered two weeks – or two months? and directions to the holding off the South Deeside Road where the organic veg box scheme was run from. And then the note became a bookmark.

The Dickens Picture Book says it all on the volume’s spine. Inside are 466 pages stuffed with 600 black and white illustrations from many familiar Dickens’ stories and characters. The author, J. A. Hammerton, a Scot, liked to create bold brushstroke narratives for publication – histories and geographies and so on. There’s also lots to read in it about all things Dickens – on the man, himself and his attitude towards his illustrators, the most famous, probably, being Boz, as well as the low-down on many Dickens’ novels.

Hammerton collaborated with Arthur Mee in producing the Children’s Encyclopedia early in the 20th century and he was behind the big-selling Harmsworth’s Universal Encyclopedia.

Harry Furniss was a hugely successful illustrator and caricaturist. Born to a Scottish mother and English father in Ireland he regarded himself as English. He contributed to the Illustrated London News, The Graphic and Punch as well as illustrating books for some of the 19th century’s major British writers, Dickens and Lewis Carroll.

Time, then, to draw this blog to a close. We’re getting there – to the end of the shelf. A couple of weeks should do it. A couple of weeks and how many more cases of government corruption? Lots and lots, I expect.What would Dickens have made of today’s Westminster bunch? A great deal – puncturing pomposity, exposing hypocrisy and sheer evil, I expect. He would have relished getting his pen stuck into them – today’s Bounderbys and Gradgrinds.

Take care till next time.

Jun 17, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 5 – Men-Lizards, Serge and Men in Prison and pathetic women

Books on a shelf Week 5

Last time I left you to carry on reading H. G. Wells’ Kipps. Finished it. Life teaches Kipps some hard lessons, as might be expected of an uncultured ‘little person’ finding fortune smiling down on him, if only briefly. Mrs Kipps’ socialist brother and his wife named their child Master Walt Whitman Pornick who is

a cheerful young gentleman of one and a half, who was given a spoon to hammer on the table with to keep him quiet…

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I really don’t know the reason why but so many books on this shelf have some association with the 1940s – the majority are second-hand but that can’t explain it. Possibly there is no explanation beyond coincidence for the house is choc-a-block with books as I repeatedly explain and they surely can’t all fall into this category – I know they don’t.

First published in Prague in 1936 Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts is a satire on the ruthless exploitation of colonies by European imperial powers. As well as historical examples Čapek was living through a time when this was still very much to the fore – European countries pillaging resources of militarily weaker nations and exploiting native populations for cheap labour. Czechoslovakia was threatened by German chauvinistic nationalism and their was not dissimilar behaviour by Britain (England) and France so the author has plenty material to hand to work from. In War with the Newts he exposes and ridicules the crushing ruthlessness of colonialism and needless to say his novel fell foul of Nazi censorship.

Captain van Toch recognises the value in exploiting Sumatra’s giant newts – for they are intelligent and skilful creatures. All goes to plan for a time but the plan has a flaw – the very intelligence that attracted him to exploit the newts means they are capable of out-smarting  their human enslavers. Like all the best exploited creatures – they rise up against their tyrants.

War with the Newts has a complex and innovative structure and is divided into three books. Book one examines the ‘Strange Behaviour of Captain van Toch’ – a man who casts a cynical eye over his fellow humans – or are they human? This Dutch ship’s captain is savagely racist and xenophobic. When informed the native Bataks are devils, Toch retorts –  

Man, there aren’t any devils. And if there were, they would look like Europeans. That thing must have been some kind of fish or something.

Eventually we discover more about the Men-Lizards from the Pacific Ocean through scientific study and reports written about them which, it is claimed, will not be read by many outside the scientific elite. A case is made for exploiting the newt population similar to all justification used by imperial powers. First overpower through armed superiority then denigrate the native population to create an impression of providing benefits instead of taking advantage of them. The pseudo-science used to justify capitalising on the newts makes up the second book within the novel. The final book introduces the war of the title.

A cleverly constructed piece of fiction that is not so far-fetched as the title may suggest for it is really about European powers in the 1920s and 1930s riven by racism, social divisions and ambitious militarism.  

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Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler is short; a novella. Schnitzler died in 1931, five years before War with the Newts was published. Born in Austria in 1862, Schnitzler’s family name was Zimmermann (as in Bob Dylan’s family name.) He was an author-dramatist who gained a reputation for his openly sexual works – which impressed fellow-Austrian, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. The explicit nature of his writing led to accusations of him being a pornographer – this was certainly the opinion of another fellow-compatriot, Adolf Hitler, who as Germany’s chancellor, dismissed Schnitzler’s books as Jewish filth (not Austrian filth) banned and had them burned.

Dream Story aka Rhapsody was written in 1926. The protagonist, Dr Fridolin, attempts to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies about another man while he puts himself about a bit. If this sounds familiar it may be because Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based on the novella. I haven’t seen the film but understand that Nicole Kidman plays the doctor’s wife as a woman confident of her own sexuality unlike Albertine in the novella who is a bit of an innocent in these matters – impassive as her husband makes love to her – well, has sex with her. You can see how this ties in with Freud’s view of women; women were inferior in all ways to men and men were anatomically superior to women inducing their penis envy. In their dreams.  

At first she gently raised her hand as if to prevent him, but he seized it and held it in his own, both questioning her and pleading with her as he looked up, so she nodded her consent and he began.

She lay there quietly, her hands behind her neck, and remained silent a long time after Fridolin had finished.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for today’s women to be confronted by such obvious misogyny. Women now, as then surely, were not the vulnerable submissive creatures Schnitzler and Freud fantasised about – their women docile as a means to an end. Will I read all 98 ½ pages of the book? I doubt it.

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Victor Serge’s Conquered City is one of a trilogy of novels that includes, Men In Prison and Birth of Our Power. George Orwell described Serge’s writing as –

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle …

Serge’s biographer, Susan Weissman, Professor Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California wrote of him –

Victor Serge is one of the most compelling figures to have emerged from the history of the Soviet Union. A lucid observer and a great writer, his is the story of a course set on hope, a pursuit of truth, dignity and human justice set against some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Forty years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR because his writing was critical of the state, Serge was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported. He travelled to Brussels (where he was born to Russian émigrés who fled Tsarist Russia) then to France. Forever hounded by the communist state he refused to stop criticising it and was constantly slandered as a result. From one persecution to another he also fled the Nazis and his final years were spent in Mexico where he died in 1947 at the age of just 56.

As Victor Livovich Kibalchich he left Brussels for France where as a youth he joined a French anarchist organisation and edited its magazine. He escaped the guillotine in 1912, unlike three of his comrades, but was jailed for five years for his political activities. Briefly in Spain on his release from jail he arrived in the newly established Soviet Union in 1919 where he became acquainted with the American journalist and communist, John Reed. Reed covered the October Revolution in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) and wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World. He died in 1920 of typhus, unable to get medicine because of a blockade against the Bolshevik government. He was thirty-two.

Conquered City is set during the civil war, the Terror that followed the Russian Revolution – terror inflicted by both Reds and Whites in 1919-20. Set in Petrograd in 1919 the story opens on a chilly night with frost clinging to all the familiar statuary and elegant buildings in that city, beautifully described. This is a political novel – how could it not be? – set when and where it is but it is no dour piece of writing. Far from it.  

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? but the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Anderson’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak house tops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store; “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No. 23 on the ration card …” How sad life is without flying carpets!

There is a lecturer whose monotone voice “fell like a fine rain” and who “was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it.”

I am now reading the entire novel.

*

Our copy of Birth of Our Power has the feel of a book never opened, far less read, though my other half assures me he has read all three. Let’s take a peek at book two.

As with Conquered City, Birth of Our Power is set during revolutionary upheaval not only in Russia but also in France and Spain and not during the better-known Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 but the brutal period of the barbarous Great War when revolution broke out in Russia and Spain.

Spain entered the twentieth century, after its stunning defeat by the United States in 1898, as a backward, corrupt, priest – and soldier -ridden monarchy.

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

Recent events in Catalonia have demonstrated Spain continues in that tradition of cruel repression of its citizens which can be traced as far back as the Inquisitions that began in the 15th century. Serge’s hope was that eventually Spaniards might be freed from the iron clad fists of governments that tortured and murdered so many of them, if not in the period in which the novel was set then in the near future. I feel he would be sorely disappointed with how that country has turned out.  

The guardia civilis went forth on horseback, in rectangular formations, black on black horses, shoulders square under their black capes, towering over the crowd with their tricornered hats and their stiff heads, as impassable as painted wooden figures. Their vigilant eyes searched into the corners of alleys, into dark doorways, into tightly pressed groups, into anything that might hide deadly aggression, bullet or bomb, the sudden great stride of death over frightened heads towards the tense horsemen riding towards their fate. Theirs, ours!

The Spanish revolt of 1917 ran out of steam but in Russia revolution succeeded, though at a terrible price.

*

Finally, Men in Prison – it is 1914 – a political activist has been sentenced to a term in prison where brutality mirrors the savagery of outside society.

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be usefully compared … The truth for Serge was something to be undergone.

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

Though he shared many of their aims, Serge was always wary of the Bolsheviks – of their authoritarianism and openly criticised their abuses. He had friends who suffered terribly under the pitiless hand of the Cheka (the Bolsheviks’ political police) while Serge, himself, was imprisoned, deported and constantly slandered by the Soviet state.

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

Chapters come thick and fast: The Lockup —Yet Life Goes On —Capital Punishment —The Will To Live —The Years —Dying — Surviving —More Deaths —About To Be Discharged —

Three gray straw mattresses on crude cots – gray with filth, spattered with all sorts of stains, stinking of dust, old straw, sleeping animality –The mattresses and the drinking cup are apparently never cleaned. After the first hour, I wanted a drink. I was clumsy enough to shake the jug, and a greenish slime rose to the surface where wisps of straw, odd leaves, hair, bits of threat, and a broken match were floating.

Serge used his own prison experiences to paint his vivid descriptions of life in Soviet jails. He writes so well but the material is by its nature harrowing to read.

This blog post should have been up days ago but one or two passages from Serge’s books stuck in my head though unfortunately not sufficiently to quote him and, of course, I didn’t write them down at the time of reading. There was a comment about hope which struck me as the sort of clever statement I fancied pinching to use on social media. Again, I failed and now am doubting the remark was Serge’s at all. Note to self – always write down references and don’t chuck the scrap of paper into the recycling before reading it again.

Finally on Serge a word about his translator, the American Marxist, Richard Greeman, now 81, whose whole life has been spent in left politics as a writer, lecturer and, of course, translator. He was befriended by Serge’s son, the painter Vlady, an encounter that led to him translating Serge’s novels, including this trilogy.

Finally, finally – I’ve become so fascinated with Serge during this preliminary encounter with him and a his writings that once I finish Conquered City I intend reading Susan Weissman’s biography of the man. People who are brave enough to stand up to rotten regimes deserve attention.

Till next time, stay safe.

Jun 2, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 4 – MacDiarmid, freedom of speech and watered beer

I’m listening to the elderly Johnny Cash while writing week four’s book selection so forgive me if I get maudlin.

Think I might be stretching credulity to its extreme if I try to link first up author and book, Hugh MacDiarmid and Songschaw, to Cash in any way but that won’t stop me trying. MacDiarmid, a major Scottish poet, made an enormous contribution to Scottish culture while American culture has been enriched by singer-songwriter Cash, a man who had good Fife blood flowing through his veins. And as culture has no barriers so everyone can appreciate both men and their talents.

Enough of this distraction. MacDiarmid might have been an awkward beggar in life but his role in the restoration of Scottish literature from the trough of its inferiority complex cannot be denied though I bear a grudge for his bloody-minded one-time dismissal of Doric, the rich dialect widely spoken in Aberdeenshire and Angus, possibly through his unfamiliarity with it though if my memory serves me correctly he became a good friend of that wonderful poetess, Helen Cruickshank, whose works are written in the Doric – they were near exact contemporaries.

The young Christopher Murray Grieve was bibliophile; his massive head stuffed full of knowledge from the time he was a boy. Political too, the teenager joined the Independent Labour Party and after the Great War in which he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps he married and lived for a time in Angus where, under the pseudonym MacDiarmid, he began to write poetry so lighting the touch paper of a new Scottish literary movement that expressed itself through the language spoken by Scots and not some affected airy-fairy literary construct. Vernacular Scots writing shamed into silence with the Act of Union has not shrunk out of a sense of inadequacy since the 1920s, thanks largely to MacDiarmid.

MacDiarmid’s best works were arguably his early poems, before he grew into an irascible grouch – and masculine. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is masterly in any language in any time – described by Kenneth Buthlay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as –

without quite bursting at the seams, is able to hold all or almost all of MacDiarmid—which is to say that it is crammed full of fine lyrics, satire, flyting, parody, burlesque, occasional verse, Rabelaisian jokes, metaphysical conceits, translations and adaptations, sustained meditations and speculations on philosophical and religious problems, elemental symbols, and allusions recondite and otherwise.

Lallans, the synthetic Scots, most associated with MacDiarmid’s writings was dispensed with towards the end of his life for English although he expressed the view that Scots was a greater medium for descriptive language than English.

Sangschaw he dedicated to his mother. This is from the preface by the author John Buchan.

Once upon a time the Scots vernacular was a national speech, and men like Henryson and Dunbar used it for the highest matters of poetry. But at the Reformation it was rusticated from court and college, and by the eighteenth century it had become a tongue only for familiar conversation, and in literature it was confined strictly to the homlier humours and affections. It was still capable, as Burns showed, of heights and profundities, but its lateral range was narrow . . .

 And Buchan added that MacDiarmid – and Robert Burns – did not confine the language they used in their works to a single dialect but selected words as appropriate from the Doric of Aberdeen in the north and all dialects south the Cheviots.

D. Cleghorn Thomson of The London Mercury wrote this of MacDiarmid in November 1924 –

Mr Hugh MacDiarmid’s little snatch of eight lines, The Bonnie Broukit Bairn is the rarest of things, a poem not to be measured by its length – humour, wit, magic, and revelation mingled as in an April rainbow.

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,

Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!

– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun

The hail clanjamfrie!

Crammasy – crimson; gowden – golden; wheen o’ blethers – lot of nonsense; broukit – neglected; hail – whole; clanjamfrie – worthless lot.

The poet is looking up into the night sky to Mars, the red planet, green Venus and the golden moon. The broukit bairn is Earth – not considered to be in the same illustrious company as the grander Mars, Venus and Moon yet the poet’s concern is with Earth and not the din coming from the three more acclaimed celestial celebrities. Earth where humanity is found – in us.

MacDiarmid was a Scottish nationalist who longed to live in a Scotland that was better than the place it became after the Union. As with his politics, MacDiarmid’s poetry was filled with certainty. No mere pretty verses satisfied him, they were vehicles for ideas in pursuit of the political and social equality he yearned for.

*

Next along is John Milton, Selected Prose. That took the smile off yer faces. Or is that the philistine in me surfacing? Likely, because there’s no argument about Milton’s place as a giant of English literature and immense influence in the development of ideas and behaviour in Britain.

I wasn’t however enthusiastic about this book and less so after a quick read through the flowery introduction by Malcolm W. Wallace, Principal Emeritus at University College, Toronto. I had a bed to change and worldly things to get on with so lost patience with Mr Wallace and went straight to the nitty-gritty – ah, Of Reformation Touching Church-discipline in England and the causes that hitherto have hindered it. It’s complex and anti-semitic? I’m thinking about which sheet to use. Turned to his advocacy of press freedom and freedom of speech, Areopagitica A speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing To the Parliament of England.

This is true Liberty when free-born men

Having to advise the public may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise,

Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace;

What can be juster in a State than this?

Surely no argument with these sentiments nor

A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spririt, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

also from Areopagitica which can found above the Main Reading Room of New York Public Library and the work has been frequently referred to in court judgements – including in America restrictions over the rights of members of the US Communist Party to free speech.

The title, Areopagitica is a reference to a speech by the 4th century BC Greek rhetorician,  Isocrates, while Areopagus itself is a hill in Athens formerly used as a court for settling disputes.

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Nestled up along alongside this little World’s Classic volume is its twin from the series of Milton’s work, The English Poems of John Milton.  The dust jacket provided me with a biography of the man – son of a scrivener, born in London and educated at St Paul’s school and Christ’s college, Cambridge. Milton was a pamphleteer – his Areopagitica appeared as a pamphlet when first published in 1644 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (usually abbreviated to the English Civil War.) Milton was a Latin Secretary to Cromwell and arrested at the Restoration (of the monarch.)

A touching piece to his deceased wife took my mind off sheets and pillowcases.

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave …

Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined …

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

He’s best known for Paradise Lost but I’ve selected one or two lines from Death of a Fair infant Dying of a cough

O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,

Soft silken primrose fading timelessly

Then thou, the mother of so sweet a child,

Her false imagined loss cease to lament …

I think it’s fair to say, Milton creeps up on you. That said I was hoping the next book wasn’t another of his. It wasn’t but be careful what you wish for.

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The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb is a wee volume packed with all sorts of writing from the English poet and essayist.

First up is The South Sea House followed by a wide range of topics such as Valentine’s Day, The Praise of chimney-Sweepers, a Dissertation upon Roast Pigs and Confessions of a Drunkard.

The South-Sea House is a slow burner and doesn’t get beyond smouldering – for me, at least. Actually, Valentine’s Day isn’t much better though I liked the line

Brush’d with the hiss of rustling wings

And it’s a case of pity the poor postie struggling under the weight of all those Valentine cards

The weary and all forspent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own.

Onto the Chimney-Sweepers.

I like to meet a sweep – understand me – not a grown sweeper – old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive – but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek – such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young sparrow . . .

Charles does like to go on a bit.

I reverence these young Africans of our own growth – and from their little pulpits [the tops of chimneys], in the nipping air of a December morning, preach a lesson of patience to mankind.

Lamb is amazed at the ability of the home-cultivated Africans to climb a chimney and survive to peep out the top.

*

I was fair longing to get down the sheets after sampling the stodge and expansive wordiness of Lamb but my spirits soared on seeing H.G. Wells was his neighbour. That’s more like it.

Kipps – the story of a simple soul

Until he was nearly arrived at manhood, it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he had come into the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other little boys.

Kipps is a grand read. Apparently Wells’ own favourite. Absorbing, funny it demonstrates Wells’ facility for observation of the human condition. He has such an eye for behaviour and the eloquence of his language carries the reader along on a magic carpet of amusement. I’m currently reading the whole thing.  And loving it.

‘Orphan’ – illegitimate Artie (Arthur) Kipps is brought up by an aunt and uncle who run a shop in the south of England. Kipps is educated to a degree below that of anything remotely recognisable as education and subsequently is packed off to learn the trade of draper – when that was a trade and not something intuitively picked up by anyone in off the street.

Kipps is signed up to seven years apprenticeship with Mr Shalford – sufficient time to fill the youth’s head with all that is necessary to know about black elastic, rolls of ribbon and silks – and a type of commercial shorthand that is essential to the drapery trade. But above all Kipps learns servility.

Mr Shalford –

What he put into Kipps was chiefly bread and margarine, infusions of chicory and tea-dust, colonial meat by contract at threepence a pound, potatoes by the sack, and watered beer.

The average late 19th century Briton’s diet to a T.

Not maudlin at all I hope you agree but then lots of different music has passed across my ears since beginning this. Stravinsky’s just packed up and left the CD player and The Doors have stepped up to see this through to the end.

Get vaccinated. Carry out the twice-weekly Covid tests at home – they’re free! Stay safe and keep us all safe.

May 22, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 3 – love and loss

Week three of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom finds me in a melancholic mood which I’ll come to later.

First up this week is a copy of poems from one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Gorenko, that contains text both in Russian and English. On opening the book three coloured photographs of northern Canada dropped out which probably indicates the book was bought there some years later than its date of publication, 1976. Every journey is a book purchasing opportunity.

I was born on June 11 (June 23, Old Style), 1889 near Odessa (Bolshoi Fontan). My father was at the time a retired engineering officer on The Russian Navy. At the age of one, I was taken to the north, to Tsarskoye Selo, where I lived till the age of sixteen.

My first memories are of the damp, green grandeur of the parks, the common where Nurse took me for walks, the racecourse where little bright-coloured horses galloped, the old railway station, and some other things that later formed part of the “Ode to Tsarskoye Selo”.

Beneath that ancient maple on the ground

My marble twin* lies broken, listless,

Her face turned ever to the pond

As to the rustling leaves she listens. 

    * a sculpture of a milkmaid with a broken jug by the sculptor P. Sokolov in Tsarskoye Selo park.

Anna Akhmatova was one of six children. Her maternal grandfather’s aunt, Anna Bunina, is said to have been Russia’s first poetess; certainly the first Russian women to make a living solely from her writing. Akhmat was our Anna’s great grandmother’s name and according to family legend it could be traced back to Khan of the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde refers to a state under khan leaders dating from 13th century territorial disputes between Mongols and Turks. And for consecutive weeks we are swept up in the myths and legends of the Netflix series Resurrection – Ertugrul which is about just this. What was golden about it? Apparently the tents lived in by some of the Mongols were golden in colour.

Like Anna Bunina, Anna Akhmatova also became a significant poet. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. In common with so many Soviet writers Anna’s work was criticised and censored under Stalin but unlike some other writers and artists she chose to live on in the Soviet Union, despite the difficulties that caused her. Her first husband was shot by the Soviet secret police – the Cheka.

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There’s an ominous knock behind the wall:

A ghost, a thief or a rat…

Her son was frequently imprisoned in Soviet labour camps. So too was her partner Nikolay Punin (a writer and art historian) imprisoned in the Gulag – dying there in 1953. On his arrest in 1949 (for criticising many of the portraits of Lenin churned out by what Punin described as talentless painters.) Akhmatova left his coat hanging in its place in their flat as a memorial.

During the war 1941 –

Now of all the plenty of this world

What is left? Only one’s daily bread,

Someone’s word – a gently human word –

And the lark’s pure singing overhead.

*

From 20th century Russia to 19th century Scotland and one of the most celebrated couples of their time, the Carlyles.

The Carlyles is the title John Stewart Collis gives to his biography of the illustrious pair, the historian, essayist and translator, Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane.   

The Father

He was among the last of the true men, which Scotland (on the old system) produced, or can produce.

So wrote Thomas Carlyle of his father, James Carlyle, a builder at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. And again,

This birth into a family of Lowland Scottish peasant stock is very important, for such families were often aristocratic in their demeanour and their values.

Carlyle remembered his ‘uneducated’ father, a master-mason and builder, of having a prodigious facility for expressing himself ‘though not on paper.’

The Son

James Carlyle ensured his son, Thomas, was more formally educated and he was able to read as a very young child who at five excelled at arithmetic and Latin. He attended Edinburgh University at fourteen, not unusual in 19th century Scotland where education and learning came next to God in worship.

Jane Carlyle was Jane Baillie Welsh. She was from Haddington in East Lothian, daughter of a doctor and his wife, Grace Caplegil. Jane was also a precocious learner, specialising in the classics before she was five. She loved to express herself in prestigious letter-writing, remarked upon by Virgina Woolf.

Their marriage was perhaps platonic and stormy but endured.

Thomas Carlyle’s writings included satirical attacks on the abolition of slavery at a time when British men, women and children were being dreadfully exploited in the United Kingdom. Among his histories his work on the French Revolution is regarded of great importance. But revered as he was for his writing among the poor children in the neighbourhood of Chelsea in London where the Carlyles moved to from Edinburgh he was better known as the man who supplied them with extravagant quantities of sweeties.

Carlyle’s criticisms of the social setup in the United Kingdom made him unpopular with some in the establishment and on a more mundane level both Carlyles experienced that common prejudice experienced by the Scot living in England, ridicule of their coarse Scotch accents which he and Jane retained throughout their lives.

*

Next up is the work of a fellow-Scot who like the Carlyles decided his literary future was best served in England. J. M. Barrie from the home of Scottish gingerbread, Kirriemuir, is best known as author of Peter Pan. He was also from a working class home – his father was a weaver – and like Carlyle he also studied at the University of Edinburgh. Also like Carlyle his marriage was said to have been unconsummated. I don’t know what that says about the University of Edinburgh.

I’m not going to write about Peter Pan as I’m not even sure we have a copy of the book any longer but Barrie’s biographical novel, Margaret Ogilvy. Margaret Ogilvy is a charming account of the author’s mother’s life.

Chapter 1

How my mother got her soft face

On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) – I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked…

Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs.

Was there ever a better beginning to a biography?

Both the child Barrie and his mother were devastated by the death of James’ brother David in an ice-skating accident a day before his fourteenth birthday.  James Barrie tried to protect his mother from the feelings of loss that stayed with all her life and as a small child he wore David’s clothes and imitated his whistling in an attempt to assuage some his mother’s despair. The lost boys and the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter Pan can be linked to David’s death.

 It was from his mother that Barrie learnt the art of the story-teller and when he set out as a writer he revived several of those tales told to him by her of her life as a girl and young woman. Barrie’s fondness for his mother is demonstrated in the touching way he writes of her. Here he describes her approaching death.

They knew she was dying. She told them to fold up the christening robe and almost sharply she watched them put it away, and then for some time she talked of the long lovely life that had been hers, and of Him to whom she owed it. She said good-bye to them all, and at last turned her face to the side where her best-beloved had lain and for over an hour she prayed. They only caught the words now and again, and the last they heard were “God” and “love.” I think God was smiling when He took her to him, as He had so often smiled at her during those seventy-six years.

*

And finally, the reason for my own melancholia (probably not the correct description since I know its cause) is our gorgeous and sweet-natured cat was put to sleep on Monday following a short illness and stroke. The Dude was about eighteen years old, a rescue cat who chose us at the Cat and Dog Home. He came home with us a poor wee specimen of a beastie, severely ill but we nursed him through that bad time and for fourteen years he was our beautiful companion who adopted the sunny front spare room and would settle down on the floor next to me while I read my daily five-minutes and more of books from the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door.

Where we lived in our last house, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, we were semi-adopted by two feral cats who looked very like wild cats. We sometimes fed them and looked out for them. These cats were different generations and one followed the disappearance of the other. Both of these cats we called Murdoch. The first Murdoch and the Dude got on particularly well. One early morning Murdoch appeared as usual in the garden and the Dude ran out to see him. We saw nothing of either of them the whole of that day. It was into the evening before Dude turned up, hungry and exhausted and went straight to bed. He slept soundly that night and most of the following day after his adventure on the road with Murdoch – or more likely across fields and woodlands. Where they got to we never discovered but life on the road didn’t appeal to the Dude and he never again followed his friend beyond the end of the drive.

The younger Murdoch was never such a close companion but he was a frequent visitor and we watched him over the years as his health failed. Cats never give up and so it was that Murdoch would drag his clearly arthritic body around the area he frequented, presumably for food from households such as ours.

One day he turned up at the back door obviously unwell. It was winter but there was some warmth from the sun against the south-facing wall of the house and Murdoch cooried in to rest there. When he went to drink from a little pond he lost his balance and it was obvious he was having a stroke and had lost control of his hind legs. The vet was called out and we managed for the first time to get hold of the poor animal and he was put to sleep on garden bench. Now the two Murdochs and the Dude can roam cat heaven together.

Farewell my old friend.

May 13, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 2 – Guy Bord? You won’t be.

Hullo again. Here I am with week two of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom. If it occurred to me week two would find me on easy-street having completed my initial book blog I was wrong. What certainly occurred to me was to cheat when I realised which books were next in line but that would have been to stoop to cowardly behaviour which I’m not normally averse to but – well a blog is a bit public, even mine. Anyway I’d included a photograph of the shelf in my first blog so such dirty tricks were out of the question.

For any who don’t know what I’m on about this series of blogs emerged from a challenge I set myself to read at least five minutes a day from a book on one shelf in one bookcase in one bedroom of my house. Before I start I should say that I am now reading the Margaret Dewar book I introduced last time and enjoying it though I don’t think she’s a particularly admiral person she doesn’t shrink from opening up her character flaws to her readers.

Not being able to find my notes on the next book along, today’s first book, The Conquerors by André Malraux, had me scranning through the recycling bin and sifting a small mountain of shredded paper through my fingers like an over-confident MI5 agent. Nothing for it but to dust myself down and start all over again.

Until a few mornings ago I had never read Malraux. Never heard of him. Like Margaret Dewar André Malraux was born at the start of the twentieth century. French, he went to Indochina on an archaeological expedition where he became embroiled in the politics of the area.  Later a spell in China then home to France to oppose fascism in his homeland where he would subsequently join the French Resistance and get involved in the Spanish Civil War, that training ground for the German fascist war machine.

His writings earned him many literary prizes though as far as I know, nor for this novel.  

25 June 1925

A GENERAL STRIKE HAS BEEN CALLED IN CANTON.

The bulletin has been posted since yesterday, underlined in red.

As far as the horizon, the Indian Ocean lies glassy, lacquered, not a ripple. A cloudy sky presses down like the fug in a bathhouse, wraps us in humid air. The passengers pace the deck methodically, careful not to wander too far from the white-framed board where bulletins monitored tonight will be tacked up………

And so on with the author developing a setting for the civil war between the Kuomintang and communists in 1920s China, the parts played by a Bolshevik, an anarchist and pacifist and the war’s impact on many more. As political novels goes it has to be said le Carré it ain’t. I gave it a go but nothing about the story grabbed my interest which no doubt says more about me than the novel but I no longer feel a book begun must be a book finished and so with a great sense of relief it went back onto the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door in the spare room. I exchanged it for Margaret Dewar’s autobiography, and don’t regret it.

Malraux’s cover picture is more captivating than the inside although I don’t know the symbolism of the fly, likely it is explained in the book. Malraux was influenced by Nietzsche and the philosopher’s ideas of uberman or superman – that ability of a hero figure to do something great and so make him all-powerful. Nothing to do with DC Comics superhero, superman – well, I say that but what do I know? It just could be since Superman was a 1930s creation that Jerry Siegel may well have been a Nietzsche afficionado.

All heavy going but wait…hold the front page…Monsieur Malraux it emerged from my googling his name was a tealeaf of some notoriety. In 1923 he was arrested for the theft of 10th century Cambodian temple relics which he intended to sell for cash, being broke at the time. He got a suspended prison sentence. Now I have to ask which crime is greater – art theft or writing a tedious novel?

Was hoping to move on to something lighter but oh, oh next up is Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy (1976.) I’ll keep it brief. Habermas has the reputation of being Germany’s most influential thinker currently. He’s still alive, at ninety-one. His ideas were popular in the 1960s and to give you an impression of what was making it big in the world of philosophy and sociology back then along with Beach boys and Beatles are a few lines from the start of the book – two lines since I feel for you.

A Social-Scientific Concept of Crisis

System and Life-World

To use the expression “late capitalism” is to put forward the hypothesis that, even in state-regulated capitalism, social developments involve “contradictions” or crises…

What I did find fascinating is Habermas’ explanation that the commonly-applied term “crisis” was first used in the context of illness. That we can all now appreciate in these Covid-19 times. Crisis in terms of illness suggests helplessness of the patient with very little influence on how the illness affects him or her. Yes, definitely appreciate that nowadays.

He goes on to consider the extent of crisis in other areas of life, the passivity of people affected and loss of individual sovereignty – fatalism. Now we’re talking because we’ve been captivated by Netflix apparently never-ending Turkish series Resurrection-Ertugrul where fatalism dominates life and death – en-shala (if it is the will of God) and if ever there was a heroic figure it is Ertugrul – one that I bet Malraux would have killed for, or at least stolen off someone.

Look, I have to lay my cards on the table – this selection, random I’ll remind you, is as light as a pan loaf sans yeast. This is me preparing you for book number three, Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Arrow in the Blue from 1954.  The title comes from a vision the 16-year old Koestler had home in Buda in Hungary where he imagined a super-arrow streaking into the blue sky and onwards through space – to infinity. The Koestlers were Russian who like so many thousands before and after them fled first from the terrifying Tsarist regime then the violence of the revolution in hope of a better and more peaceful life in Europe or America which is how the Koestlers came to settle in Hungary.

Arthur Koestler was an interesting man. A near exact contemporary of André Malraux, the name is German but this Hungarian-born writer is classed as British. A one-time communist, Koestler abandoned the party over the ruthlessness of Stalinism and his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon published in 1940, is set during Stalin’s great purge and Moscow show trials.

Goodness knows where our copy of Darkness at Noon is; certainly not on this shelf so let me get back to Arrow in the Blue which begins with –

Horoscope

From the beginnings of civilization man has held the belief that the constellation of heavenly bodies at the moment of his birth had an influence on his fate. (Back to Habermas.) It occurred to me that the constellation of earthly events at that moment might also be of some significance and, one day in 1946, I decided to cast my secular horoscope.

Koestler took himself off to The Times publishing offices in London to pore over a copy of the newspaper published on 5 September 1905, his birthday. What he was faced with were all kinds of mundanity. Just what impact any of the mundane events he discovered had on his future Koestler wasn’t certain but his life turned out to be anything but mundane. He was a member of the KPD, German communist party; a member of a Zionist duelling club; was a farm labourer in Palestine; sold lemonade in Haifa; edited a Cairo newspaper; was a foreign correspondent; a science editor in Germany; a Cold War propagandist in Britain and perhaps most exotically of all he flew to the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin in July 1931. After becoming terminally ill he and his wife, Cynthia, committed suicide in 1983 in London.

I can’t leave matters on that tragic note so will squeeze in a duo of books by John Aberdein. First up is Strip the Willow proving the slapdash storage of books because if there was any order on this shelf his first novel, Amande’s Bed, would be to the left but it isn’t so let’s take a look at Strip the Willow after a brief word about its author, John Aberdein – from Aberdeen.  

Because of the impact made by Amande’s Bed on the reading public Strip the Willow was eagerly anticipated. The book delivers savage satire and splenetic venting through the medium of the Doric; the language rich with its own vocabulary that is spoken from Aberdeenshire to Angus.

The strikes, occupations and demonstrations of France in May 1968 form the background of Strip the Willow which is set somewhere not unlike Aberdeen – in a city called Uberdeen. Uberdeen isn’t a nice place. The rapaciously ambitious LeopCorp dominates everything that goes on in it. For those not familiar with Aberdeen its emblem comprises a pair of leopards. Everything is up for grabs in Uberdeen, everything turned into a money-making opportunity by LeopCorp’s Rookie Marr’s gofer – the wonderfully named Guy Bord, a man who has come though almost as many political groupings as Arthur Koestler. Rookie Marr might be a shoe-in for Nietzsche’s and Malraux’s uberman but they never imagined turning Uberdeen’s majestic granite main street into a giant bowling alley – it’s impossible to overstate the whole bizarre jamboree that is Strip the Willow.  Guy Bord is a nod to the French Marxist philosopher and filmmaker, Guy Debord, and is typical of Aberdein’s clever wordplay.

March 31

what larks

A lemon UCKU plastic bag, flat on the tar, lank in the air, hopped and gusted towards her. According to the latest story, plastic bags were the root of all badness.

Nobody will be free until the last financier is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.

Get your orgasms throwing paving stones.

L’imagination c’est le pouvoir, Imagination is power. Such was the calibre of slogan she and others had printed and glued to the walls of Paris.

Mort aux sacs plastiques! It didn’t quite fit somehow.

My copy of Strip the Willow was personally inscribed by John in 2009 at a book event at Aberdeen University which is very nice. The novel won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Award for Fiction in 2010.

All this takes me to my final book for now, Aberdein’s debut novel, Amande’s Bed which took the Scottish literary world by storm – a tour-de-force of the Scottish novel that won the Saltire Book of the Year prize in 2005.

Amande’s Bed attacks the ‘plasticated’ incursion of Americanisms into our lives resulting in de-junking of local traditions and values. It is a tale of love and internationalism, European naturally, with the eponymous Amande – a French-Scot – discovering the northeast is well in need of revolution and ripe for it. Aberdein’s entrance into Scotland’s cultural scene if not quite as sensational as the coming of the messiah was nevertheless dramatic. He was immediately compared with, among others, our own Ali Smith and Jackie Kay and James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

No idea if any of the above, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges have tackled the varied occupations that John Aberdein has – herring and scallop fisher, teacher, parliamentary candidate, political adviser… kayak coach, the first man to kayak around the Scottish mainland.

Eve

The most of Scotland spread out

His mother woke several times that night, over-sweaty to sleep now with memories stirred. Finally she upped and padded from the bed-recess to the scuffed porcelain sink. She poured herself a cup of cold water, standing and nursing it, her candlewick robe over her nightslip. Dee water it was, Dee water that had come eighty miles from the roof of Scotland into the tenement.

a deterrent

I took the bus up tae see Ludwig. Ward 8.

O, that was good o ye. Ye hardly ken him.

I’ve met him afore. He was gey dozent wi the anaesthetic. I left him a pound o fudge.

Fit like was he, did the doctor say?

Better than maist folk that’s just lost a haun. Aye, an far you then?

And we waited after Strip the Willow but John Aberdein didn’t feel obliged to continue indulging us with his raucous and hilarious jabs at authority and exploitative and ruthless capitalism for there have been no more novels.

Enough of this. Till next time, take care a’body.