It wasn’t a plan particularly, but then that’s part of the joy of books – I never have a plan for what I’m going to sink my teeth into next. It is usually just a matter of wanting something different from the one before.
But a couple of books recently have done that self-referential thing: they’re books about books (a bit like U2’s recent self-referential album, I suppose). And it got me thinking about the other books I’ve loved that have done this. Read more
As ever slow on the uptake, but I finally got round to reading Azar Nafisi’s beautifully written 2004 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a rich, highly thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir from an Iranian English literature professor about her life and students (in particular the small but diverse group of women in her reading group). She meditates deeply on her culture, on their favourite authors and their books, on the simple wonders of reading. She makes extraordinary, unexpected connections – which aid understanding of both the literature and life in Tehran.
Have been playing catch up with a few New Yorker back issues in the last couple of days – like buses, you get none, and then suddenly several arrive in the post in a pile. So I was stopped in my tracks by Japanese Maple, a new poem by Clive James. He’s a remarkable writer and commentator – his is a sizzling combination of high intelligence, unsnobbish cultural magpie-ism (if that’s not a thing, it jolly well should be) and laugh-out-loud-wit.
But he now has terminal cancer. As a result he knows he’ll never make it back to his native Australia before he dies. (Here is an interview he gave back in 2013) He is confined to Cambridge and the UK. So here he writes of the tree planted by his daughter in their garden. Read more
This is superb and completely speaks for itself.
It subverts the natural, but risky, human desire to connect all the dots on the basis of a few curiosities and anomalies.
Errol Morris’ short film asks why it was that ‘The Umbrella Man watched the JFK motorcade in November 1963 with his umbrella up. Whenever someone is articulating a conspiracy theory like this one, it is always worth keep an ear out for ‘facts’ like this one… Read more
Friday saw the end of our annual All Souls church week away, during which I was speaking on a series of psalms from David’s life. The result is now online on iTunes, for general amusement, delectation and/or edification. Read more
Rachel Kelly is spot on: “But in the end, depression doesn’t follow rules: it is a devil that comes in many guises.” (Black Rainbow, p231) So there is a sense in which her experiences of depression (two highly debilitating and bewildering attacks and the subsequent need to manage it) will inevitably be unique. But her new Black Rainbow is remarkable: for it is no misery memoir but an act of generosity. In making herself vulnerable through talking so openly about facing and working through deeply personal pains, she has offered nothing less than a gift of grace. For in the midst of the bleak, black, barrenness of depression, she has found a path through. For those of us perhaps further back along the road, this is a germ of hope.
It hardly needs saying, but spying did not stop with the collapse of Communism. But if spying continued, it naturally follows that so did betrayal. The haunting question provoked by every betrayal is, “Why?” Perhaps it was easier to understand during the Cold War. The globe’s ideological map was drawn all too clearly. However flawed the enemy might be, believing in their ideological stance always made it forgiving those flaws much easier. But what about today? Read more
Work on my book on suspicion, spies, conspiracies and the like continues apace (hence minimal blog posting) – but I’m wondering if some of you can help me a little bit. I’m currently working on some of the conspiracy theories that float around Christianity and the church. Perhaps the most notorious is the one popularised by Dan Brown in his Da Vinci Code. It’s been a while since reading it, but I wonder if any Dan Brown aficionados might check that I’ve done justice to the conspiracy that his heroes Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu expose. I’ve tried to summarise it as succinctly as possible, but if you can think of any aspects that I’ve overlooked, I would be hugely grateful if you could suggest them in the comments. Read more
I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
So, there’s been seriously long radio-silence from Q in recent weeks. But this is not the result of inactivity. Far from it. Regulars will be pleased to hear that my book is seriously under way – with 5 out of 10 chapters now completed in draft. Phew!! There’s going to be lots to blog on when it’s done – but I don’t have the energy or brain to do both at the same time! Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping up reading and stuff. Here are a few reviews of recent freebies I got on the Amazon Vine programme. There might be something of interest to someone… Read more
As part of a new series to prepare for/coincide with UNCOVER happening at All Souls over this year, I did a talk on Sunday evening on the question of the historicity of the gospels. It’s a contentious issue, full of mantraps and perilousness, not least because of the short length of time available to address it. But I had a stab, and aimed to touch on what I sense are the key issues, in the hope that the serious inquirer or thinker will follow whichever (or all) of them is important to them. Read more
Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.
It’s Friday, and so that would normally call for some Friday fun. Well, this post more or less qualifies as a bit of fun, but it’s also a bit of seriousness too. So I’ll let it stand on its own merits. Here is a very helpful and salutary public health warning from the great nineteenth century social reformer and polemicist William Cobbett. It has much to teach us. As I’m sure you’ll agree… Read more
This is one of my favourite short, and true, stories. It comes from the pen of the wondrous Douglas Adams, he of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. It needs little explanation or introduction. But it is the perfect illustration of all kinds of self-delusions and self-righteousness. Read more
Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. Read more
I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city): Read more