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Archive for March, 2013

Auto-BiommiIron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, as told to T.J. Lammers (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Halfway to ParalysedHalfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Alwyn W. Turner (V&A Publishing, 2008)

Guise and MollsOctopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate: A Natural History, Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson and James B. Wood (Timber Press, 2010) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Yew and MeThe Pocket Guide to The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, Alan Mitchell, illustrated by David More (1990) (posted @ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Iron Man by Tony Iommi with T.J. LammersIron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, as told to T.J. Lammers (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

To understand why this book rocks, you just have to get back in Black. That is, turn to the index and the entry for

Ward, Bill

[…]

   set on fire, 192-4, 369

Other bands go through blues periods or heroin periods or prog-rock periods. Black Sabbath went through a setting-their-drummer-on-fire period. If Led Zeppelin were rock-gods, then Black Sabbath are rock-goblins. Which is one reason I prefer them to Led Zep. Another reason is their music: it’s much more inventive and much less pretentious, in my opinion. You can’t imagine Led Zep setting their drummer on fire and you can’t imagine them recording a song called “Fairies Wear Boots” either. If Led Zep had never existed, it’s hard to see that rock music would be much different today. If Black Sabbath had never existed, rock music might be a lot different. It might also be a lot better, in some people’s opinion, because Sabbath were central to the creation of heavy metal. But their doomy, tolling sound owes something to chance – the unhappy chance of Iommi losing the tips of his right fingers on his last day at work in a factory in Birmingham. He thought it had ended his nascent career as a guitarist, but he found a way to use home-made “leather thimbles” to protect his reconstructed fingertips. All the same:

I’m limited because even with the thimbles there are certain chords I will never be able to play. Where I used to play a full chord before the accident, I often can’t do them now, so I compensate by making it sound fuller. For instance, I’ll hit the E chord and the E note and put vibrato on it to make it sound bigger, so it’s making up for that full sound that I would be able to play if I still had full use of all the fingers. That’s how I developed a style of playing that suits my physical limitations. It’s an unorthodox style but it works for me. (ch. 6, “Why don’t you just give me the finger?”, pg. 24)

Iommi needed determination and willpower to overcome the accident and both are apparent in the photo-section. He looks, to put it simply, like a hard bastard. “Iron Man” is a good name for this autobiography and it isn’t surprising that Ozzy Osbourne was frightened of him. Iommi has been the engine of Black Sabbath in more ways than one: he writes the riffs and rights the riff-raff and he’s been the only ever-present in the band. I wonder how much his music and his menace are owed to genetics: he was born in Birmingham, but both his parents were of Italian descent and Iommi looks distinct from the native Brits Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, who have lighter hair and milder eyes. Once you’ve seen the photos, the dynamics of the band should come as no surprise:

We also had some bloody laughs there [in Miami during the recording of Technical Ecstasy (1976)], especially when we played jokes on Bill. He would never allow the maids in to clean his room. One day we got a big load of this really horrible, smelly Gorgonzola cheese, and while somebody kept him talking I sneaked into his room and piled it under the bed. [L]ater I came in again and the smell was atrocious. I went: “Phew, Bill, what’s that smell?”

“I don’t know what it is, it must be my clothes.”

Bill is a dirty bugger; he’d pile his filthy clothes in a corner.

“When are you going to clean them?”

“I will, yeah.”

He never sussed out the cheese under the bed. It smelled absolutely vile. He actually started smelling like cheese himself. (ch. 40, “Me on Ecstasy”, pg. 156)

Bill Ward was the butt of the band, as the bassist Jason Newsted was in Metallica. Like Newsted, Ward left the band that made him famous, but unlike Newsted he returned and is still there. He was lucky: he might have left permanently after the final “set the drummer on fire” incident. It put him in hospital and could have killed him, Iommi says in chapter 48, “Ignition”. Or T.J. Lammers, his ghost-writer, says on his behalf, anyway. I was a bit disappointed to see the autobiography was an “As Told To”, but it’s probably for the best, because Iommi admits he had a poor education. And you quickly forget the ghost-writing once you start reading. Lammers doesn’t try to get literary or high-flown and Iommi seems to be chatting in a down-to-earth, Brummie way about his decades in one of the world’s biggest and most influential rock-bands. One of the loudest too. Why is a song on Born Again (1983) called “Disturbing the Priest”? Because they recorded the album in a studio called The Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside and the noise prompted a petition from the neighbours, which was delivered by the local priest. Iommi goes on to explain how the album was heavy metal in more ways than one:

In those days you had to make your own effects. Bill made this particular “tingngng!” sound on “Disturbing the Priest”. He got this by hitting an anvil and then dipping it into a bathtub full of water, so that the “tingngng!” sound slowly changed and faded away. It took us all day to do that, because trying to lower the anvil gradually into the water was a nightmare. It took two people on one end and two more on the other to lower it, with somebody else hitting it. It was so heavy that we couldn’t speak or anything, just sort of nod to each other… All this to create one “tingngng!”, which nowadays you can get from a computer in seconds. (ch. 56, “To The Manor Born”, pg. 224)

So the anvil was a handful, but Iommi doesn’t describe any other sweaty activities. He keeps things clean: chapter 24 describes fishing “out of the window” at the Edgewater Hotel made famous in Hammer of the Gods (1985), but no groupies are introduced to fish in unusual ways. Elsewhere he talks about drugs a fair bit, but there’s more about the music and the menacing. I’d include the jokes and pranks under that last heading. This is the funniest rock bio I’ve ever read, but I’m sure it was less funny to be on the receiving end of Iommi’s alpha-male domineering. Setting Bill Ward on fire or abandoning him, blind drunk, on a boating-lake or park-bench was on the simpler, more spontaneous side, but he also convinced Martin Birch, the superstitious producer of Heaven and Hell (1980), that he was being jinxed with a voodoo doll:

I loved it. I really lived on it. I was looking forward to going in the next day, just to wind him up some more. Martin changed from being this confident chap to being a nervous wreck, going: “What’s happening, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

I got the doll out again and he said: “You’re sticking pins in it! It’s me, isn’t it? That’s me!”

[…] Fantastic, it was a real gem and it lasted the entire recording session. We never told him. He’ll read this book and go: “The bastard!” (ch. 47, “Heaven and Hell”, pg. 190)

In the next chapter Iommi is nearly barbecuing Bill Ward, but a few chapters later, he’s having to rescue someone else from dangerous jokes. On the Born Again tour, whose Stonehenge stage-set inspired a famous scene in Spinal Tap (1984), Sabbath’s then manager Don Arden decided to re-create the “Devil Baby” on the album’s cover. So he hired a “midget in a rubber outfit” to leap off the Stonehenge columns and flash his eyes at the audience before the show started:

The midget was a bit of a pop star, because he’d been one of the little bears in Star Wars. Ozzy at the time also took a midget out on the road; I think he called him Ronnie. I don’t know who had the first one, really. It became a thing. Midgets were in demand. But we had the famous midget because ours was in Star Wars. (ch. 57, “Size Matters”, pg. 233)

But the crew didn’t like the midget’s references to his fame and started to play tricks on him:

We finally decided it was best for all parties concerned if he left, especially after the crew decided to put the lights out on him at the very moment he jumped from the columns onto the drum riser. He went: “Aaaaaah!”

Splat!

He caught the edge of the drum riser and nearly broke his neck. Meanwhile, we were backstage waiting to come on and it just blew the show. We said: “That’s it, he’s gone!”

They would have killed him if we hadn’t fired him. (Ibid., pg. 233)

You don’t get midgets in Hammer of the Gods, to the best of my recollection. It’s another reason to prefer Hammer of the Goblins: this book is better-written and there’s much more humour in the Sabbath story. If it sometimes has a dangerous edge, that makes it like life. Also like life is Sabbath’s music: some is good and some is risible. Their album covers run the gamut too: Black Sabbath (1970) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) are good, Paranoid (1970) and Sabotage (1975) are risible. But Paranoid contains some of their best music and is named after their most famous song. This was actually a filler for the album after the producer Rodger Bain said to Iommi: “We don’t have enough. Can you come up with another song? Just a short one?” (ch. 18, “Getting Paranoid”, pg. 73)

Covers of four Black Sabbath albums

Two good, two bad — click for larger image

The others “popped out for lunch”, Iommi came up with a riff, then Geezer came up with the lyrics, though Iommi says that he and Osbourne probably didn’t know what “paranoid” meant at the time: “Ozzy and me went to the same lousy school, where we certainly wouldn’t be around words like that” (pg. 74). This uncharacteristically short and fast song brought them their greatest success, including an appearance on Top of the Pops. You can expect the unexpected with Black Sabbath. Also unexpected is that they’re all still around, despite the drugs and the dangerous jokes. Friends of Iommi’s, like John Bonham, Ronnie Dio and Cozy Powell, are no longer around, but he reminisces about them here and about his still-living friends and admirers. For example, he wins tributes on the back cover from Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and James Hetfield. I think the tributes are well-deserved. Iommi’s success is based on inventing music and inspiring metal, not igniting musicians or employing midgets. It’s the latter that make this book so entertaining and memorable, but no-one would want to read it if it hadn’t been for the music:

I thought “Zero the Hero” [off Born Again] was a good track and apparently I’m not the only one who likes it. When I heard “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses I thought, fucking hell, that sounds like one of ours! Somebody also suggested that the Beastie Boys might have borrowed the riff for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” from our song “Hot Line”… I have a habit of keeping my riffs; I’ve got thousands of them. You know a riff is good when you play it and it gets to you. You just feel a good riff… I found that while I’m still able to keep writing them, I usually don’t go back to the old ones, so I’m only getting more and more. Maybe I should sell riffs! (ch. 56, “To the Manor Born”, pg. 224)

But that is what he has been doing throughout his career: selling riffs and shaping rock. He’s earnt his star on Birmingham’s “Walk of Fame” and deserves the respect he’s paid by everyone from Henry Rollins to Lemmy out of Motörhead. And even if you don’t like his rock’n’roll, you may still find yourself rocking with laughter at his stories.


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Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Alwyn W. Turner (V&A Publishing, 2008)

This is a big book about big names. But not always respected names: Cliff Richard is a by-word for “bland” and Tommy Steele was much more music-hall than mean, moody and magnificent. And some of the names were big back then, half-forgotten now, like the charismatic but unlucky Billy Fury from Liverpool. He was born Ronnie Wycherley, which explains his change of name. Vince Eager, Georgie Fame, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride and Marty Wilde weren’t born under those names either. Re-invention is an important part of rock: musos are made to sound and look meaner. Or milder. The Beatles, who appear in the final chapter, were taken out of their black leather. Which is ironic, because it was inspired by Gene Vincent, who was put into his:

Vincent had been brought over to Britain by Jack Good, primarily to appear as the star of the television show Boy Meets Girls. Anticipating danger, Good had been horrified to meet off the plane a polite Southern gentleman. “I thought he was going to be a dagger boy, the rock and roll screaming end,” he remembered, before adding with some relish, “I had to fix him.” He readjusted Vincent’s look so that, by the time the star reached the television screen, he was dressed in black leather and ostentatiously dragged his damaged leg behind him. When asked later about this new image, Good cited Shakespeare’s Richard III as a model, with the moodiness of Hamlet thrown in, and admitted that the set was constructed to make it more difficult for his star: “I arranged for some steps so that he could hobble nicely on TV, but he negotiated them very well and hardly looked as if he was hobbling at all. I had to yell out, ‘Limp, you bugger, limp!’ He didn’t mind. He limped.” (ch. 3, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, pg. 94)

Vincent was an idol of the Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing group, and the bassist Jet Harris is quoted as saying: “That’s what we called real rock and roll.” But the Shadows appeared in suits, not black leather, and so did all the other British acts discussed and pictured here. They might have admired Gene Vincent, but they dressed like Buddy Holly. And played like him too: British rockers didn’t have the primal power, the jungle rumble, of Americans like Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran. Unlike Elvis, that trio all performed in Britain, but doing so killed Eddie Cochran: he died in a car-crash near Bristol in 1960 at only the age of 21. He was the greatest of the early rockers, I think, or at least the greatest might-have-been. If you’ve never heard “Somethin’ Else”, “C’mon Everybody” or “Summertime Blues”, you haven’t heard the roots of rock. If Cochran did all that having barely left his teens, what might he have done later?

He reminds me of Évariste Galois, the French mathematician who died at twenty but whose work is still honoured in his field. I don’t think Cochran was a genius like Galois, but he had great talent and he stands out in his photos, on-stage in 1960, like a peacock among crows. His backing players, presumably British, wear suits and ties. Cochran wears black-leather trousers and a metallic waistcoast over a plaid shirt. He dominates the stage as he might have dominated the ’60s, but he never reached 1961. His posthumous single, “Three Steps to Heaven”, topped the charts in Britain but “didn’t even make the top 100 in the United States”. It wasn’t a very good single, after all, but Britain was grateful for his tour and he has always remained popular here. It would be some time before Brits were brewing rock’n’roll as potent as that of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent at their best. Vincent was hampered by a bad leg. Perhaps Brits were hampered by good taste.

You can see them beginning to shake it off here, but the most memorable photo remains that of Eddie Cochran in 1960, king of the stage and ready to reign in the decade ahead. He’d never get a chance to and the book says he foresaw this. After Buddy Holly died in a plane-crash, Cochran had premonitions of his own death in an accident. He wanted to stop touring and concentrate on studio work. But the need for money brought him across the Atlantic and sent him back dead. It’s a memorable story, which is why I mistrust it. The re-inventions of rock don’t stop after death and Cochran pioneered more than music for Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. They too would die young and attract memorable stories, but there’s little hint of their drugs and decadence here. Cochran was about songs, not sybaritism, and didn’t celebrate self-indulgence.

He’d be in his seventies now, like the Rolling Stones, who don’t quite make this book. That’s appropriate, because I think he’d have given more to music if he’d survived.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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Gábor, Gábor, Hej!Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, Gábor J. Székely (1986)

Hit and MistThe Lost World and Other Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (various dates)

Pride and PrecipiceThe Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

Mocking ManningEminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (1918)

Mind the GapLytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd (1967)

H8-FactoryRe-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music(k) of Take That, 1988-2007, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (2013)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, Gábor J. Székely (1986)

A fascinating book in a number of ways. First the obvious way: probability contains some of the strangest and most counter-intuitive mathematics that amateurs can easily understand. I could cope with a lot of this book, but it still stretched and even re-shaped my mind and my understanding of the world more deeply than almost any art has. There are very odd things to be found even in something as simple as the patterns of heads-and-tails in coin-tossing. For example, although HH and HT are equally likely to occur first when you start tossing a fair coin, “more tosses are necessary, on average, for HH than for HT to turn up”. That just doesn’t make sense at first glance. It’s a paradox, in other words, and if you can understand it you’ve taken a step even the most intelligent human beings were once unable to take.

Much less subtle, but probably much more important in life, is this:

Consider two random events with probabilities of 99% and 99.99%, respectively. One could say that the two probabilities are nearly the same, both events are almost sure to occur. Nevertheless the difference may become significant in certain cases. Consider, for instance, independent events which may occur on any day of the year with probability p = 99%; then the probability that it will occur every day of year is less than P = 3%, while if p = 99.99%, then P = 97%. (ch. 1, “Classical paradoxes of probability theory”, pp. 54-5)

Then there’s the question of why buses always seem to run “more frequently in the opposite direction”. The mathematics gets much trickier here, but that’s an example of how maths, unlike so much of the modern humanities, can extract deep meaning from apparently simple things because deep meaning is actually there. Mathematics is both the most fundamental and the purest of all subjects, and is something that can unite minds across barriers of language, culture, and politics.

This book is a good example of that, because it was first published not only in a communist country but in what is, to most Europeans, a very strange language: Hungarian. Hungarian isn’t part of the Indo-European family spoken almost everywhere else. If this book had been written in French or German or Spanish, its original title would look more or less familiar to an English-speaker. But its original title in Hungarian ― Paradoxonok a véletlen matematikában ― looks very odd. Even without being told, you could guess from some of the English that the book is a translation, but that adds to its charm and helps prove the universality of mathematics. A Hungarian can speak mathematics to anyone without an accent, and vice versa ― though I suspect that the mathematics here occasionally stutters because of typos. The English certainly does, but then the book was printed under communism, which did not encourage efficiency and attention to detail. Communism is gone now, Hungarian and maths both continue, but maths will outlast Hungarian, just as it will outlast all other languages spoken today.Vivat regina!

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Front cover of The Lost World by Arthur Conan DoyleThe Lost World and Other Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (various dates)

Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, “When the World Screamed” (1928), in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia theory suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of later science is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):

A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see… many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.

There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both ways. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World” (1912), notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:

“Filthy vermin!” I cried.

Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.

“You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”

Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.

Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humours: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. This makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog” but not very intelligent. Doyle also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European race, which does seem to be the case.

But Doyle’s prescience has failed so far in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical interest than literary merit. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout the story. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of spiritualist propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, Challenger opposes the supernatural and has to be brought round against his will. He champions materialism as his daughter Enid and his friend Malone, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts materialism as an intellectual proposition:

“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

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Front cover of The Monk by Matthew LewisThe Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too and Lewis might have got in more trouble if he hadn’t been satirizing Catholicism for a Protestant audience. The Monk is the story of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience and demonic temptation in eighteenth-century Spain. Fortunately perhaps, the bloody twists and turns aren’t very realistic, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned later in his short career, was still informing the newer and his characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. Also theatrical is the poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed by a gypsy fortune-teller or an aristocrat’s page. Even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis didn’t intend it to: The Monk is a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as a Member of Parliament. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

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Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (1918)

I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, travelling to and returning from my place of work. One day I took and finished a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The next day I accidentally took the novel again and, having nothing else to read, started it again. And finished it again. It proved just as enjoyable second time round, because although the story was completely familiar, I could re-enjoy the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.

There aren’t many authors I can re-read immediately like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can read again and again, or rather the essay on “Cardinal Manning” is. I think it’s some of the best writing in modern English: 36,000 words of immaculate prose, coruscating wit and magisterially distilled erudition. It’s been easy for a long time to laugh at the Church of England, but no-one has ever fired sharper satiric darts than Strachey did almost a century ago:

When Froude succeeded in impregnating Newman with the ideas of Keble, the Oxford Movement began. The original and remarkable characteristic of these three men was that they took the Christian Religion au pied de la lettre. This had not been done in England for centuries. When they declared every Sunday that they believed in the Holy Catholic Church, they meant it. When they repeated the Athanasian Creed, they meant it. Even, when they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, they meant it – or at least they thought they did. Now such a state of mind was dangerous – more dangerous indeed than they at first realised.

They had started with the innocent assumption that the Christian Religion was contained in the doctrines of the Church of England; but, the more they examined this matter, the more difficult and dubious it became. The Church of England bore everywhere upon it the signs of human imperfection; it was the outcome of revolution and of compromise, of the exigencies of politicians and the caprices of princes, of the prejudices of theologians and the necessities of the State. How had it happened that this piece of patchwork had become the receptacle for the august and infinite mysteries of the Christian Faith? This was the problem with which Newman and his friends found themselves confronted.

His mockery of Catholicism, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, partly because it is also less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancour. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome “has never had the reputation of being an institution to be trifled with.”

The other essays, on Dr Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon, are also highly readable and entertaining, but there are signs, particularly in the last, of the carelessness and solecism that mar Strachey’s biography Queen Victoria (1921). He writes well elsewhere, but he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning”. And his biography Elizabeth and Essex (1928), whose first line announces that “The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one”, starts as it means to go on: badly. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so strongly there, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.

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Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd (1967)

It’s likely that the biographer of a writer will write less well than his subject. The better the writer, the likelier this is. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. In fact, this book proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, you could almost imagine that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where you might suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, you should suppose again:

On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)

There are suspended participles like that everywhere in this book, or at least everywhere I’ve looked. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily. Reading this book, I felt rather as though Holroyd was using a microscope on a soufflé. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians captures four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words. In the introduction, Strachey says that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”

If so, then Holroyd badly neglects his first duty. There is some memorable writing here, but Holroyd isn’t directly responsible for it:

“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)

On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at Bedford Square]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?… Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. [“When you dance, you are not a man – you are an idea. It’s that, isn’t it, that makes Art?… You have read Plato, no doubt?” ― The reply was a grunt.] (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)

Elsewhere, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the dross to find all the concealed nuggets. That is the image suggested by the book; the relation of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.

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Thirteen Girls, Mikita Brottman (Nine-Banded Books 2012)

I’m no expert in her work, but I don’t think the Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman is a very coherent or profound thinker. Yes, she’s brighter than David Kerekes or Jack Sargeant, but that’s not difficult and her academic specialities prove that she doesn’t know where to draw the comedic line. Being a PhD in EngLit is a good joke. Being a psychoanalyst is a good joke. Being both is grotesque to the point of vulgarity. And vice versa. However, despite all that, I did at least think Ms B was a Good Persun – an Obama-voter, an egalitarian, someone who wanted to make the world a cleaner, kinder, caringer place.

Yes, that’s what I thought.

Then I came across Thirteen Girls, her study of thirteen female murder-victims. I’ve not read the book and I don’t intend to: I got bored with true crime a long time ago. But I don’t need to read the book to be aghast at its ideology. Okay, at first glance, it further exposes the Evil White Male, or EWM/Yoom, and his Evil White Maleness, or Yoomness. But let’s not beat about the bush, or the Brottman: this book buttresses white privilege. And hyper-hypocritically so:

When describing Thirteen Girls, I often refer to Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus,” in which ordinary people go about their daily routines, barely noticing the tragedy taking place in the background. My students get the analogy immediately, but in the narrow world of publishing and the marketplace, the concept of an unobserved tragedy is definitely not a selling point. (“The Afterlife of Murder”, Mikita Brottman)

Oh, yeah? So Ms Brottman thinks she’s interrogating issues around unobserved tragedy and lives that are lost without the wider world noticing. But all the victims in this book are white. All thirteen of them. Every last flipping one. Even in death, they are benefiting from white privilege and the racist hegemonic mindset that dictates who is seen as Important and who is not. What about the countless Victims of Color (VoC) raped and murdered by Yooms on a daily, indeed hourly, basis? Huh? It is no excuse – no excuse at all – that Brottman is herself not a Woman of Color (WoC). That merely makes it worse. Herself having white privilege, Brottman has used it to buttress the bestial, rather than vocalizing the VoC and interrogating the evil of the Yoom in its full horror. The clear message of this book is that Yoomness only matters if it is directed at white women.

We can see the same message in a recent news-story from South Africa. First, consider a simple fact: not thousands, not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of Black women have been raped or murdered there by the legacy of apartheid since Yoom fascism was toppled in 1994. But none of that has received a fraction as much attention as the death of a single woman called Reeva Steenbock earlier in 2013. Why? Because Reeva Steenbock was the white girlfriend of a famous white man. And when a Black death does receive publicity – someone was recently tied to a police van and dragged to death by the legacy of apartheid – guess what? The Black victim was male.

This book is another example of that noxious narrative and of the refusal of white-privileged women to show solidarity with VoC’s and stand with them against the Yoom and his Yoomness. There are no two ways about it: Brottman is reinforcing racism, facilitating fascism and nurturing Nazism. And if you think I’m being hyperbolic, consider another simple fact: Nine-Banded Books, the Yoom publisher of Mikita Brottman, is also the publisher of Jonathan Bowden. An infamous fascist philosophaster. Coincidence? I fear not. Ms Brottman needs to repent her white privilege, denounce her publisher and start working against the Yoom, not on behalf of him.

Want to see how a genuinely decent and progressive writer does that? Then look no further than Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and her just-published Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music(k) of Take That, 1988-2007. Now, there is a woman whose ethics I can respect.

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