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Archive for March, 2014

Front cover of Mein Kampf by Adolf HitlerMein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1925)

I came to this book after learning that Hitler was a vegetarian and have to say I was extremely disappointed: not a recipe in sight, only pages and pages (and pages) of turgid political theorizing and autobiography. This becomes even more of a shame when you think of the advantages Hitler had: as a young man he lived for a long time in Vienna, famous around the world for its chocolate and confectionary. A great opportunity to write a classic of pre-war vegetarian cuisine was criminally missed here. One can hardly wonder that Hitler’s reputation never recovered from this early setback.

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Clive AliveC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

Ink TuneNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reaktion Books 2013)

Stan’s FansAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

Words at WarPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

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Nick Drake Dreaming England by Nathan Trowse-WisemanNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reverb/Reaktion Books 2013)

I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.

A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.

I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.

As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:

For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)

Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.

So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.

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Awaydays by Kevin SampsonAwaydays, Kevin Sampson (Vintage 1998)

If you’re going to try a fictional entry in the hoolie lit genre, try this one. My interest was partly voyeuristic and I skimmed for the good bits rather than reading properly, but it deserves some of the hype given to John King’s weak and poorly written Football Factory series. Sampson is a much more intelligent and skilful writer. A lot of people will assume he’s cashing in on King, but his book was written before King’s became popular. The sex and violence in Awaydays are much more realistic: you’d definitely like to partake of the former and avoid being on the receiving end of the latter.

But dishing it out is pleasurable: violence is addictive because of its chemical effect on the brain. The narrator’s best friend, an Ezra-Pound-loving thug-eccentric called Elvis, tries more conventional pleasure-chemicals too, like heroin. That’s part of how Awaydays has more anthropological and linguistic interest than King’s books, being about obscure Tranmere Rovers and provincial Liverpool rather than world-famous Chelsea and London. Not that “Dzuh Roh Voz!” are Liverpudlian. They’re from Birkenhead, across the Mersey from the strange and dangerous city of Liverpool, but the rest of the country is right to lump them in with the Scousers. There’s a nastiness and criminality, even a psychopathy, about Liverpool that Tranmere fans in this book share, as the narrator reveals right at the beginning: “Tranmere are the only team in the Third who go away by train and we’re the only ones who use Stanleys – as Chesterfield and all the other knobheads now know.”

A Stanley knife is a razor blade set in a metal handle. It’s difficult to kill with one, but easy to slash and scar. That’s why they were popular with some football hooligans. The narrator of the book doesn’t use one, but plenty in his crew do, to put the knobheads in their place. Awaydays is actually a study of hierarchy and status, because those are very important things to human beings. Violence is one way of establishing who’s above who. So are music and fashion, in this case those of the late 1970s: Joy Division and sovereign rings. Sampson captures the period and setting well and although his attempts at humour and quirkiness can seem a little contrived – the Dr Who convention gatecrashed by Tranmere in Halifax, for example – they’re something else that separate him from King.

So does the ending of the book. Capturing the period and setting well isn’t necessarily a good thing, because both are bleak and unpleasant, and the narrator eventually decides to get out. He realizes the futility of what he’s been doing and the viciousness of it will be brought home after his last away trip. He’s intelligent, middle-class-ish and from a suburb, so he has never really fitted in and trouble starts when he finds he’s being fitted up. That’s why he never gets to face the big boys Tranmere have drawn at home in the F.A. Cup after winning both on and off the pitch at Halifax. But his confrères try their best to get an early taste of what’s in store:

The journey back is a merry one. By the time we draw in at Lime Street, we’ve hyped ourselves up into a mob of fervent Scouse-haters and everyone’s up for storming the Yankee Bar. We’ll never have a better crew or a better opportunity so it’s a deadly let-down when a hundred-odd of us walk into Liverpool’s legendary stronghold and find it packed out with Christmas revellers and drunken old girls singing rebel songs. There’s one or two heads in the back who cannot work out who the fuck we are. They know we’re nothing to do with The Road End and the Yankee isn’t the sort of place you’d expect Everton to go socially. Eventually one of them comes over, horrible kite on him, nasty, narrow eyes and a bit of a scar on his temple. He starts trying to pal up to us, asking what the game was like. Marty pushes his way over.

“We’re Tranmere. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it, you Odgie cunt.”

“Tranmere.”

He just repeats the word, mulling it over quietly amused, then pulls a wincing face. He’s cool. Not remotely flustered by the odds of a hundred and seventeen to five. Ugly, but cool. Batesy, with commendable valour and utter stupidity, stands up.

“You’ve just met The Pack, lar!”

Suddenly it’s my turn to wince. I glance at Elvis. All of a sudden our steely, streetwise little crew sounds like a bunch of drama students playing at being football thugs. Why do we have to have a name anyway? The Scouse lad smiles to himself.

“Well. We’ll be seeing youse then, The Pack.”

He walks back to his mates. Moments later a big laugh goes up. (pp. 114-5)

Status, you see. But why do Liverpool have more than Tranmere and Tranmere more than Halifax? It’s as trivial as demographics: cities generate more violence and have more young men to practice it. That isn’t all there is to it, however, and you can catch the fringes of Liverpool’s unique nastiness here. Perhaps there’s something genetic at work, reflecting the Irish Catholic influence. Whatever it is, Sampson has seen it and can get it down on paper.

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