Francis Spufford has gained a bit of a following for his recent Unapologetic – a quirky defence of Christianity which various bloggers have picked up on (I’ve only dipped into it but will read it fully soon and perhaps blog). But he has one of the most surprising and unique literary voices around. I was fascinated by his Red Plenty last year (an extraordinary account, part fiction/part history, of the heyday of Soviet Optimism in the 1950s) and have now just finished his simply sublime The Child that Books Built (Faber, 2002).
Well, at last. I’m on sabbatical. There are various plans of course. Some may become clear on Q in the weeks to come. But the main thing is that it gives the chance to stop, reflect, breathe, and do some things I’ve not yet had the chance to do. One of which is to do a serious reading catch-up.
I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read any of these books. But such is life: you can’t do everything.
It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts. Read more
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. Read more
I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. Read more
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
I am SO grateful to Frankie who suggested I read William Styron‘s piercing and affecting ‘memoir of madness’, Darkness Visible. It was back in July that I ordered it, but only this last Saturday when I read it. It is brief – only 80 pages or so – but gripping. I read it one sitting. It felt like a compulsion – but I know that I will return to it, with greater patience and scrutiny. It was only published in 1990, but is now a classic of its kind. Deservedly. Read more
I would imagine that writing a novel that conveys the power of music is as difficult as writing a song about the spectacular beauty of an African sunrise, or painting the throbbing anguish of raw grief. But when one medium succeeds in conveying the reality of another, unexpectedly different experience, one’s admiration for (not to mention understanding of) both is profoundly deepened. So here are a few books which have helped me to marvel afresh at the wonderful, humanising effect of music. They underline the truth that music is one of the greatest gifts of common grace.
In their different ways, they resonate with that wonderful moment in Shawshank Redemption when the prison is stopped in its tracks by the ineffable beauty of Mozart played over the tannoy, not least because of Red’s (Morgan Freeman’s character) delightful description of it. Read more
I hated this book. I can’t even remember who suggested it or exactly why (it must have been something to do with the work I’m doing on our culture of suspicion and alienation) – but that’s probably just as well! Michel Houellebecq’s ATOMISED came out in France in 1999, and then in English translation in 2000: and caused uproar, scorn and derision, as well as some literary plaudits and admirers. Read more
Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. Read more
The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more
Having taken a look at the big picture, political issues of the Hunger Games trilogy in the first part of my Damaris review, it seemed to me that the heart of the books lies in their exploration of the private. In fact, it’s very unlikely that the books would be anything like as successful as they have been were it not for this. For we really get to know Katniss, in all her doubt, confusions and even less attractive qualities. She is not a cardboard cutout heroine, which is perhaps why so many (both male and female) relate to her so well. After all, there are not many female protagonists who appeal across the gender divide. Read more
It was a joy to be able to spend a couple of hours with members of the CU at London’s University of the Arts on Thursday evening, giving a talk on this subject. Sarah Dargue has already done a really good job at summarising the key points over at the Interface Arts page (if you’re an arts student, definitely worth keeping an eye on that blog). But here is my talk outline, so that you can get some of the key quotes and references, plus my slides. Read more
Over the Easter break, we enjoyed a first in our family – we all read the same books together (or to be more accurate, competed with each to be able to start the next instalment before one of the others got to it). We all devoured Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and it was a lot of fun, leading to a number of great chats. We didn’t it feel appropriate for our 10 year old to read the third instalment (‘Mockingjay’) because there were parts that were genuinely scary for that age (and in fact, had to get her to skip around 20 pages of the 2nd, Catching Fire). But Rachel, my 13 year old and I read all 3 and thoroughly enjoyed them. There’s so much in them, quite apart from being gripping yarns. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more
If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), Read more
I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
Am just back from a 24 hour escape to the country with a few other guys – we meet once or twice a year and have been (on and off) for years. It was a real tonic and encouragement to me personally. I’ve realised more and more how much I need this sort of thing. But the particular treat of this time away was staying at Ferrar House in Little Gidding. As its website shows, it has all kinds of wonderful historical, and especially literary, connections. Charles I and George Herbert… and of course more recently T S Eliot. As it happened, he only came here for an afternoon and never stayed the night. But his link with the place was immortalised by the 4th of his FOUR QUARTETS, entitled Little Gidding. Read more