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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2009)

Well, I was wrong. This book isn’t funnier than the first part of Peter Hook’s autobiography. Nor is it as funny. In fact, it was a big disappointment. Not that I’m an ideal reader for a book about a legendary nightclub. Drugs, crowds, bright lights and deafening music. Who could ask for more? Me. Or not me. I’d ask for a lot less. I don’t find this kind of thing amusing:

That [PA] set-up lasted until 1988, when we splashed out for a huge system from Wigwam Acoustics […] that made everyone’s nose tingle because of the huge bottom end, and deafened audiences for a whole week. Eventually we had to turn it down from 140db to 130db because doctors were phoning up to complain – too many patients with Haçienda hearing problems. (“1984”, pg. 84)

But I do find this kind of thing amusing:

A fine example [of our incompetence] was Teardrop Explodes [sic] in May 1982. They were massive at the time and Rob [Gretton, New Order’s manager] paid them £3000 to do a ‘secret’ gig (nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but you’re supposed to let the word out so everyone will come).

We kept it so secret only eight people turned up. (“1982”, pg. 45)

This was amusing too:

We continued to make mistakes. For example, the place would be repainted every week, which cost a fortune. But, rather than wash out the paint tray and rollers, the staff would throw them in a pile then go to B&Q and buy new ones. I found that pile after we went bankrupt and it was like fucking Everest, had two Sherpas and a base camp on it. (“1984”, pg. 82)

And it’s also amusing that both the Haçienda and its cat received catalogue-numbers, Fac 51 and Fac 191, from Factory Records, the home of Joy Division and New Order. But there’s not enough amusing stuff here. For me, the best bits may have been the set-lists for two of the many bands who performed at the Haçienda. This was the Cocteau Twins on Thursday 8th December, 1983:

‘When Mama Was Moth’, ‘The Tinderbox’, ‘Glass Candle Grenades’, ‘In Our Angelhood’, ‘From the Flagstones’, ‘My Love Paramour’, ‘Sugar Hiccup’, ‘Hitherto’, ‘Musette and Drums’ (pg. 71)

And this was Einstürzende Neubaten on Thursday 28th January, 1985:

‘Seele Brennt’, ‘Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.’, ‘Meningitis’, ‘Armenia’, ‘Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Sand’, ‘Negativ Nein’, ‘Letztes Biest (Im Himmel)’, Hör mit Schmerzen’, ‘Tanz Debil’, ‘Die Genaue Zeit’, Abfackeln!’ (pg. 100)

Just from those song-titles you know that those were two bands who, in their very different ways, were doing something very strange and interesting. Or bloody interesting, in the case of Einstürzende Neubaten and their pneumatic drill: “The gig ended when the singer’s throat burst and he started screaming blood all over the mic. Our sound-guy Ozzie got onstage and knocked him out. ‘I’d warned him once,’ he said.” But Hook doesn’t write about the Cocteau Twins or talk much about gigs by anyone except Einstürzende Neubaten and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Chainies blew through the Haçienda on their “17 Minutes of Feedback Tour” in 1985. Hook says: “I thought, ‘That sounds quite interesting’, so made sure I worked security that night.” (pg. 93)

Alas, the gig was “excruciating”, because “17 Minutes of Feedback” was exactly what the audience got. Having listened to this, Hook removed the human shield that was protecting the Chainies from the people they’d deliberately provoked: “I was so wound up after they’d finished, I pulled the bouncers off and let the punters at them.” They were quickly sent on their way. But that was in the mid-’80s and soon the gigs at “the Haç” got fewer and fewer as the DJs took over. I think bands and their gigs are much more interesting than DJs and their sets. Joy Division and New Order were interesting, for example, but Hook doesn’t write about them much here either. He refers to New Order mostly as the source of the money poured into the bottomless pit of the Haçienda. As Tony Wilson of Factory Records put it: “About three years after opening the Haçienda we realized that everybody in Manchester was getting free drinks – except for the people who actually owned it.” (pg. 108)

But Hook, Wilson & Co. weren’t content with one bottomless pit: they opened another in the form of a bar called Dry. That too fell victim to the gangs who began to poison Manchester’s night-life in the 1990s. The Haçienda tried to fight fire with fire by hiring thugs to police thugs. That’s why they brought in the Manchester-Irish crime family called the Noonans:

Dominic Noonan, who worked with his brother [Damien] for the club, later told documentary-maker Donal MacIntyre that the Haçienda was a ‘tough door’; that gangs from Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Salford would turn up, all wanting to get in for free, so ‘me and some of the lads who ran the door said enough was enough, let’s take the trouble to them – and we did.’

He and another doorman paid a visit to a pub, his mate with a shotgun, Dominic wielding a machete. ‘One of the gang lad’s dogs was about [dog-lovers and vegetarians might want to look away now] so I just chopped its head off, carried the head inside the pub and put it on the pool table. I more or less told them, “Stay away from the Haçienda or the next time it’ll be a human head,” and they never came back. (“1993”, pg. 260)

That warning for “dog-lovers and vegetarians” is funny, but it might have been added by Hook to something written by someone else. That story about Dominic Noonan and his machete is from one of the mini-histories in italics that punctuate the text (and that appear in Hook’s Joy Division book too). And why do I think Hook wasn’t responsible for the mini-histories? Well, they don’t always read like him and at the beginning of this book, a mini-history describes a controversy over a record-sleeve for Joy Division. It was designed by Peter Saville with a photograph of “the Appiani family tomb” on it. The record came out shortly after Ian Curtis’s death and Factory Records were accused of making a “tasteless reference to the suicide”. The mini-history says: “A bemused Saville pointed out that the design had been finalized prior to Curtis’s death.” (pg. 15) I don’t think Hook wrote that line. Guardianistas use ugly and pretentious words like “finalized” and “prior to”. As I noted previously, he isn’t a Guardianista (so “bemused” isn’t his kind of word either).

If he were a Guardianista, perhaps he would have avoided making some definitely tasteless references like this:

When drum’n’bass and hip hop became popular in 1995, we ended up being unable to hold so-called ‘black-music’ nights because there was so much trouble. Even the police encouraged us not to promote these shows and our bouncers eventually refused to work at them too – and don’t forget that our bouncers were lunatics themselves (in the nicest possible way). But even they said these nights couldn’t be policed. (pg. 238)

As Barry Miles did in one of his autobiographies, Peter Hook is just feeding a stereotype of violence and disorder in the black community. First of all, there is no more violence and disorder in the black community than in any other community. Second, okay, although there is a lot more violence and disorder in the black community, this is caused by hegemonic white racism and the legacy of slavery. And the very violent Noonan family weren’t black, which proves it. So there.

Anyway, this book disappointed me, but I’m not an ideal reader for a book about a legendary night-club. Lots of other people have been and will be. And it’s got a good index. Plus, I learned that the cedilla in Haçienda was (maybe) there to make the “çi” look like the “51” of its catalogue number. Good arty idea, that.

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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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The Church Hymnary, Various (Oxford University Press 1927)

Books are also boats. They sail down the river of time and they get more interesting the longer they sail. This book is old enough to contain a hymn attributed to “Frederick Lucian Hosmer, 1840–”. That is, he was born in 1840 and when this book was published in 1927 he was still alive. It’s a useful reminder that the Jazz Age had many millions of Victorians in it, men and women who had been born and grown up in the nineteenth century. George Orwell captured the same truth in the following decade:

Coleridge Grove was a damp, shadowy, secluded road, a blind alley and therefore void of traffic. Literary associations of the wrong kind (Coleridge was rumoured to have lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1821) hung heavy upon it. You could not look at its antique decaying houses, standing back from the road in dank gardens under heavy trees, without feeling an atmosphere of outmoded ‘culture’ envelop you. In some of those houses, undoubtedly, Browning Societies still flourished, and ladies in art serge sat at the feet of extinct poets talking about Swinburne and Walter Pater. – Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936

This hymnary was printed for the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian churches both in Britain and overseas in countries like South Africa and New Zealand. It reminded me of Swinburne in two ways, one positive, the other negative. The verse is often technically excellent, which is positively reminiscent of Swinburne. But it lacks inspiration, which is negatively reminiscent of Swinburne. There’s very little poetic fire here and nobody seems to be drunk on language the way Swinburne often was. The versifiers are on their best behaviour rather than writing at their best. Here, for example, are two very big names at far from their best:

Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord, for He is kind:
For His mercies aye endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure. – Hymn 11

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust;
Thou madest man, he knows not why;
He thinks he was not made to die;
And Thou hast made him; Thou art just. – Hymn 142

Can you guess who wrote either of those? I doubt it. Hymn 11 is by John Milton and Hymn 142 is by Alfred Tennyson. And their hymns remind me of a line from an essay by A.E. Housman: “In fact, what Swinburne wrote, and what Pope and Dryden wrote, was not, in the strictest sense of the word, poetry. [… I]ts appeal was not to the core of the human mind and the unalterable element in its constitution.” Milton and Tennyson could and usually did write poetry in the strictest sense, but not here.

That puts them in the majority. I would say that most of the hymns here are versification, not poetry. The words are clever but cold. My favourite hymn in this book is an exception:

Who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound – his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit
We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then, fancies, flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

I think that literature wasn’t a secular activity for John Bunyan in the way that it was for Milton and Tennyson. He truly and deeply believed, so his hymn is true poetry and could stand on its own without a tune. But I think the best hymn quâ hymn is this:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of all before His judgment seat.
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make us holy, let us die to make all free,
While God is marching on.

That’s included in a section entitled “His Coming in Power”. And it is indeed a powerful hymn: I would predict that Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) had a broad face and lots of testosterone. Some of the other female hymn-writers here don’t give that impression:

Part in peace: Christ’s life was peace,
Let us live our life in Him;
Part in peace, our duties call us;
We must serve as well as praise.

Amen. Hymn 543

That’s by Sarah Flower Adams, who was born in 1809 and died in 1848. Did she have a chronic illness and write to console herself for that? Her very brief and yearning hymn gives that impression. The hymnary as a whole would certainly appeal to people who like calm, order and hierarchy. It’s also very well-printed too, still solid and sturdy as it approaches its centenary with its springy black cover and gilt-edged pages. I’m glad that the river of time has carried it into my hands, because it’s a messenger from another time and culture.

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Paul McCartney: The Biography, Philip Norman (W&N 2016)

If you look in the dictionary under “rock’n’roll”, you’ll find a picture of Paul McCartney. Yup. With a big black line through it. Macca is possibly the least rock’n’roll person on the Planet, man. Rock’n’roll should be down’n’dirty. Macca deals in light-and-frothy. Rock’n’rollers should be mean and menacing. Macca is music-hall. His ideal instrument would be the banjo, not the bass.

But he remains fascinating for in terms of issues around certain core components of his life-journey. For the size and longevity of his fame. That’s one component. For the rumours of his several illegitimate offspring. That’s another. Philip Norman engages issues around this toxically tantalizing topic in terms of chapter five:

“Boys will be boys!” Brian [Epstein] would say with a camp, self-satirizing sigh when news came to him that another girl was claiming that one of the Beatles was the father of her infant child. Sometimes Brian could quickly prove that the girl was mistaken or lying, but sometimes he would have to write a cheque or find some other way of keeping the girl’s family quiet and his beloved boys out of the headlines. […] Most of the claims were directed at Paul, who cut a swathe through the young female fans of the Beatles with his good looks and easy charm. “Paul would have the fun, then Brian would have to clean up the mess,” as an anonymous member of Beatles’ circle would later put it. Perhaps the worst mess of all was that of the Bootle girl, said to be of gipsy heritage, who turned up at Brian’s office with her young son and claimed that Paul was his father.

As the same anonymous informant told me: “Brian took one look at the child and realized that she must be telling the truth, because he was an angelic-looking kid who must have been the dead spit of Paul at the same age.” But the girl wasn’t after money or marriage, like so many of those who had preceded her and would follow: as a fanatical Beatles fan, what she wanted more than anything else in the world was for Paul to write a song just for her. Not only that: she wanted to be the only one to ever hear it. As the price of her silence, she demanded that a song be written and recorded by Paul entirely in secret, then passed to her as a unique single — the only one of its kind in existence anywhere. Brian was forced to agree and persuaded a reluctant Paul that he had to comply with the girl’s wishes.

Or so the story goes. If it is true, then a lost McCartney classic may still be out there, unheard by all the world except for a single gypsy girl and perhaps her family. What would that rumoured single be worth if it were put up for auction today? Even a song of average quality might fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds; if it matched the quality of “Yesterday” or “Michelle”, the sky would be the limit. But of course there would be a legal minefield to tread, because Paul himself would certainly lay claim to the song and any profits to be made from it. For all we can say at the moment, however, the rumours of the Lost Single are either untrue or the gipsy girl prefers to keep the song just for herself.

Is the song out there? Does the Gipsy girl still listen to it? Has she ever let her son in on the secret? Does he know that he has a Moppa-Toppa Poppa? Esoteric questions for feral folk.

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The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall (Thames & Hudson 2014)

I enjoy books that have me taking notes and looking for more online. This book certainly had me doing that: it’s erudite and informative, full of fascinating asides and anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that the arrow transfixing the martyr’s neck in Pietro Perugino’s St Sebastian (c. 1493-4) actually consists of a narrow line of text: PETRAUS PERUGINUS PINXIT, meaning “Pietro Perugino Painted (This)” in Latin? I didn’t know that and I’m not sure I’d’ve noticed anything strange about the arrow if I’d looked at the painting for myself. Good art-criticism enriches and informs our experience of art like that. And if you wonder how you missed something that seems so obvious once it’s pointed out to you, well, that’s a reminder that you should look more carefully when you’re on your own.

But I wasn’t so sure that this book was good art-criticism as I worked my way through it. Or at least, I wondered whether it was as good as Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (2009). I don’t think it is, but Cumming set a high standard. She also followed a well-trodden track that Hall has followed again. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez appear in both books, but it would be perverse to avoid them in a history of the self-portrait. Then again, perversity is one way of making a name for yourself when so many critics have written about a limited amount of art for so long. James and Cumming don’t employ it, but I wish they had in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638-9). It would be perverse of an art-critic to call Gentileschi a bad painter and this second-most famous of her works an ugly, awkward and uncouth mess.

But it would also be true. Hall and Cumming aren’t perverse: they treat paintress and painting seriously. Where’s Brian Sewell when you need him? Six foot underground, that’s where. I think he could have written a better book on self-portraits than either James and Cumming have done. It would certainly have been more idiosyncratic and politically incorrect. But would Sewell have been able to draw a parallel between self-portraiture and acting by quoting from Diderot? I don’t think he would. James could and did (but I’ll put the original French first):

Garrick passe sa tête entre les deux battants d’une porte, et, dans l’intervalle de quatre à cinq secondes, son visage passe successivement de la joie folle à la joie modérée, de cette joie à la tranquillité, de la tranquillité à la surprise, de la surprise à l’étonnement, de l’étonnement à la tristesse, de la tristesse à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’effroi, de l’effroi à l’horreur, de l’horreur au désespoir, et remonte de ce dernier degré à celui d’où il était descendu. – Denis Diderot, Paradoxe Sur le Comédien (1773/1830)

Garrick puts his head between two leaves of a door, and in the space of four or five seconds, his face passed successively from wild joy to moderate joy, from this joy to composure, from composure to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to gloom, from gloom to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and then back again from this final stage up to the one from which he had started. (ch. 7, “At the Crossroads”, quoting from Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting, written 1773, published 1830)

That was one of the parts of The Self-Portrait that had me taking a note and finding out more online. But erudite and informative as the book was, it was still, like all artistic criticism, trapped inside a web of words. Critics write constantly about geniuses but can’t explain them or analyse their work other than superficially. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez all had special brains. I want to know how those brains evolved not just in a cultural sense but in a biological sense too. And I don’t believe that all races were capable of producing the dazzling art that’s discussed here.

Biological analysis of art will seem perverse and even blasphemous to critics, who mostly belong to the biology-denying Guardianista community, but their prejudices won’t stem the flood of perversity that is on its way. And if art criticism is something will never be the same again, then nor will the human race.

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Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz (Oneworld 2013)

This book reminded me of a line by one of Saki’s characters: “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Similarly, the people of Iran make more religion than they can consume locally. Much more. That’s part of why Iran is such an interesting place. I knew enough about Iran not to think it was Arabic-speaking or inhabited by Arabs. This book has taught me some more, but it deserved more time and attention than I’ve been able to give it.

As “Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada”, Richard Foltz is the sort of scholar who turns up regularly in the New York or London Review of Books. And he probably has done exactly that. Fortunately, his prose doesn’t sink to the levels of pretension and posturing you can often find in the NYRB and LRB. He has some illuminating things to say. But perhaps “irrigating” is a better description of this example:

The “Pool Theory”: Possibilities, not Essence

My own approach to the notion of “religion”, which sees the term as being, for practical purposes, almost synonymous with “culture” and not a separate category, places less of an emphasis on providing a description as such, than on identifying a pool of ideas and behaviour from which communities and ideas may draw in constituting their particular worldviews. I call this approach the Pool Theory: it posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or “pool”. (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

The Iranian pool is unusually deep and broad: the region has been creating, influencing and absorbing religious ideas for millennia. Who were the magi of the New Testament, for example? Priests from ancient Persia, that’s who. The new religion of Christianity was drawing on the prestige of a much older religion, that of Zarathustra or Zoroaster, whose life can’t even be given a fixed millennium, let alone a century. As Foltz says: “Among the founders of the world’s major religions, none is more shrouded in mystery than Zoroaster. Basic questions, such as where and when he lived, remain unresolved.” (ch. 3, “In Search of Zoroaster”, pg. 32)

But perhaps if Zoroaster had been less mysterious, he would also have been less influential. Zoroastrianism has also shaped and inspired Judaism and Islam. It’s no longer the dominant religion in Iran, but it’s the part of the cultural pool where Iranians still swim. So is Manichaeism, a religion that appeared in Iran in the third century AD. It’s much less-known than Zoroastrianism, but may be even more interesting: after all, it was “perhaps the most maligned religion in history”. Its founder Mani “died in prison in 276, presumably tortured to death, at the age of sixty” (ch. 10, “Manichaeism”, pg. 138). His eclectic and eccentric religion was known for centuries “only through the polemics of its worst enemies, such as Augustine of Hippo and the various heresiographers and historians of Islam”. (pg. 137)

Manichaeism was eventually driven out of Iran to become an official religion among the Uighur Turks of Central Asia, then die far off and long later even further east: “The last Manichaean community appears to have survived in southeastern China until the seventeenth century, when it became unrecognizably absorbed into popular Buddhism”. (ibid., pp. 143-4) What inspired the enmity that began this exile? Modern scholars like Foltz aren’t able to explain that fully, even now that they have original Manichaean texts from “the widely separated deserts of western China and Egypt” (pg. 142). But Manichaeism, while retaining its own doctrines, seems to have borrowed too readily and adapted too flexibly to other religions. That is, it was a chameleon, so its rivals could never be sure whether their own adherents were truly as orthodox as they seemed. Augustine knew it from the inside: he “was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.” (pg. 137) As Foltz notes: “his interpretation of the latter faith was greatly influenced by his rejection of the former”.

So an Iranian religion influenced Christianity again. But Manichaeism influenced Judaism and Islam too, “if for no other reason than that its proselytizing success and extreme doctrinal positions forced apologists for other faiths to refine and strengthen their own views” (pg. 137). And the contrarian spirit of Manichaeism lives on. Iran is today the centre of “Shi‘ism” (sic), the branch of Islam that very roughly corresponds to Protestantism in Christianity and that was born in southern Iraq in opposition to orthodox Sunni Islam. When rebels become rulers in Iran, rebellion doesn’t cease. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

[…] the Qajar dynasty was brought to an end in 1921 by an ambitious soldier called Reza Khan (born 1878) who seized power and assumed the title of Shah in 1925. Reza Shah, as he was now known, made a conscious effort to recall Iran’s pre-Islamic greatness by calling his new dynasty the Pahlavi [after an ancient Iranian language]. […] Reza Shah’s modernizing agenda favored those among the traditional clergy, Shariat Sanglaji for example, who showed themselves pliant and willing to preach a reformist version of Islam compatible with the king’s goals. At the same time, his nationalist policies encouraged a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic identity. This included a replacement of Arabic words and place-names with Persian ones. Many among Iran’s intelligentsia were attracted to the national reawakening taking place during the 1930s, which sometimes portrayed Islam as an alien religion that had been imposed through force by a culturally inferior people. (ch. 14, “Shi‘ism”, pg. 205)

The dynasty founded by Reza Shah lasted until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to create “The Islamic Republic”. Foltz discusses the republic in chapter 18, but he’s understandably cautious in what he says. He has an Iranian wife and I assume he visits Iran regularly. As he says in the previous chapter, discussing the tribulations of “The Bábí Movement and the Bahá’í Faith”: “Those Bábís who survived [in Iran] adopted the age-old Shi‘ite practice of taqiyya, dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to ensure the survival of the religious community” (loc. cit., pg. 235). In some ways, Bahá’ísm is Manichaeism reborn: hated and persecuted in its land of origin.

But we don’t need to wonder many centuries later whether the hatred and persecution are in any way justified: we can see for ourselves that they aren’t. Like Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahá’ís aren’t officially recognized except as enemies of the true faith. Like Ahmadis, many have left the country in which their religion took shape. History is repeating itself as tragedy, not farce, but the tragedies of Iranian history are part of what makes the country so interesting and you can see another side of the Islamic Republic in another chapter: “…Zoroastrians in Iran enjoy a number of privileges denied to Iran’s Muslim majority.” (ch. 19, “Iranian Zoroastrians Today”, pg. 258) For example, like “Iran’s Christians and Jews, they can make and produce alcoholic beverages”.

Persecuting or tolerant, innovative or heresy-hunting, Iranian religion is both fascinating and important. You can get a good idea of its depth and complexity in this book, whether you paddle or plunge into the millennia’s-worth of ideas, stories and personalities that swirl and mingle here.

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